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How to kill a king

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Sir Leon was, to say the least, feeling a little… troubled.

Now, he was not in the habit of criticising people’s pastimes. As any sensible man, he acknowledged the fact that each man needed a hobby, some activity to take their mind off unpleasant matters, and he, himself, particularly enjoyed the benefits of sewing.

But, this

To throw fruits and vegetables at hay-stuffed figure vaguely resembling the late king of Camelot, all the while screaming with no little amount of fervour, for the love of Camelot!

Well, it all seemed just a little bit extreme to him. Drastic, to say the least. And quite provocative, too.

But then again, each man was allowed to pursue their own hobby, right? No matter how morally challenging the said hobby was.

And it’s not like it hurt anyone – one the contrary, this was just a tiny bit of hay and wood, nothing more. A tiny bit of hay and wood tied to a pyre in the middle of a courtyard. It was all quite symbolic, Leon guessed. And, well, we would rather have people throw fruits at an inanimate object, than turn their ire towards the current king of Camelot.

And yet –

“Are you quite certain that it’s legal?”

The answers he got from the knights and Merlin were – disappointing, to say the least.

“Who cares so long as it’s fun?”

“It seems moral, if that helps.”

“And it sure as hell feels good. Besides, what would be illegal would be not to do it, cause frankly, this idea is genius.”

“Of course it’s illegal, Leon. Insulting the latest king? Few things are more treasonous than that. By right, we should all be beheaded.”

Pause.

“But…?”

“What?”

“Well, I just thought you’d add something to that. Something to justify our actions.”

“Oh, no. I was done. We are entirely in the wrong. That was actually my whole point.”

“Right. Thanks, Merlin.”

“No trouble.”

Merlin beamed.

Leon was seriously beginning to doubt his life choices.

– Thirty minutes earlier –

“I am uneasy.”

“We know, Leon.”

“No, really. I am uneasy. I have absolutely no idea what we’re doing here.”

“Leon! This will do you good!”

“Shut up, Gwaine. We all know you only came because Merlin said that there would be free drinks.”

The knight weakly defended himself, feigning offence, but the knights could all remember him saying, ‘Free mead? Count me in,’ and so they all simply cast him very sceptical looks.

“Oh, Elyan!” Gwaine retorted with heat, though the look in his eyes at the mention of ale fooled no one. “You’re no better! We know you only came because Gwen’s coming, too, and you want to keep an eye on her.”

“That, at least, is an honourable motive,” the knight replied, sniffing in a haughty manner.

The knights glanced behind them to see if Guinevere had heard anything, but the woman only had eyes for Lancelot, with whom she had engaged in a very passionate conversation about war hammers and other underrated weapons. The two lovers, only paying attention to the other’s presence, were being glared upon by the knights.

“Love is sickening,” Gwaine spat, shaking his head disgustingly.

“Lancelot being with my sister is sickening,” Elyan acquiesced, and the two knights rode forward, glad to have finally reached an understanding.

Leon, nervously stroking his mare’s red mane, gave the fortress in front of them a dubious look.

“Do you really think that’s the place?” Percival asked him, following his gaze. “A ruin?”

“Part of me hopes that it’s the wrong place, and that we’ll just ride back to Camelot,” Leon muttered.

“Come on, Leon!” Gwaine exclaimed, giving him a look of disapproval over his shoulder. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“This is not adventure, it’s suicide,” Leon stubbornly maintained.

“And when will you stop eavesdropping on your friends’ conversations, Gwaine?” Percival complained. Then, turning back to Leon, he sighed. “I wonder where Merlin’s gone.”

“He said he’d join us at the entrance of the castle,” the knight replied. “Forbade us to enter without him. We’ll have to keep a close eye on Gwaine, I’m afraid.”

Indeed, the knight had already nudged his mount faster and had now almost reached the ruin.

“Can’t let him out of our sight for one minute,” Leon confirmed, before riding faster as well so as to join his friend.

The castle was in a poor state, and Leon wondered how the Uther Hate Group could possibly hope to host crowds in such a place. ‘It won’t be just any meeting,’ Merlin had warned them, an impatient grin tugging at his lips. ‘They will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the group, do you realise? Even Arthur’s birthday will be nothing compared to this!’

Needless to say that Leon was worried beyond words.

When he’d agreed to coming to the meeting, he’d agreed to joining a peaceful talking group that would permit him to voice his most deeply buried issues. What he had not agreed to, however, was to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of a homicidal group – occasion during which there would be, apparently, plenty of activities, for the most morally dubious.

Thank God Arthur isn’t here, he thought.

“Oh, oh, oh, holy damn. Who is this beauty?”

That… was Gwaine.

Leon, following Gwaine’s eyes, could almost feel his heart dropping inside his chest as he saw Merlin arrive… but not alone, oh, no.

There was a woman riding alongside him.

Tall and undeniably well-built underneath the red tunic that she was wearing, she was holding the reins in a firm and assured grip. Her hair was long, gleaming golden under the midday sun, and Leon noted that she appeared to be in a very sullen mood, if the way that she refused to meet Merlin’s eye was anything to go by. He could see Merlin’s lips moving and curiously wondered what he was saying to her. In response, she simply glared the other way, superbly ignoring her companion.

He frowned.

Everyone, literally everyone, loved Merlin.

So how could she… not?

Merlin, however, did not seem all that troubled by the woman’s hostility. On the contrary, he was beaming, and beamed even wider as he contemplated the castle in ruins.

“Merlin!” Gwaine greeted him with a grin, and Leon knew, he just knew, that he would not like the knight’s next words. “And... my lady.” He bowed, and Leon resisted the urge to bury his face inside his hands. Keeping his eyes on the lady, Gwaine added: “Merlin, you didn’t tell us that you had such a lovely friend. Where on Earth did you hide this beauty?”

If glares could kill, then one simple glance from the woman would have been enough to reduce Gwaine to a pile of ashes.

But things being as they were, Gwaine barely reacted to the glare, simply grinning and running to the lady’s side, offering to help her dismount. She ignored him majestically, sliding off her horse on the other side. Gwaine, alas, wasn’t so easily deterred.

“Sir Gwaine, my lady…” He took her hand and delivered a kiss. The lady, visibly shocked by the gesture, remained entirely still. Merlin snorted. “At your service.”

The woman still wasn’t moving, and Gwaine sent Merlin a slightly worried gaze. “Is she – is she alright?”

“You’re being rude, Gwaine!” Gwen snapped, rushing to the woman’s side and offering her an apologetic smile. “That’s just Gwaine, being his usual infuriating self. Try not to pay attention to him. I’m Guinevere, but you may call me Gwen.”

“This is Aria,” Merlin introduced the lady, still with a curious grin hanging on his lips. “She’s a friend. Aria, allow me to introduce Gwaine, Leon, Elyan, Percival and Lancelot. And, well, Gwen.” He smiled at Gwen, who returned the smile warmly. “I’m sure you’ll get on well. So, shall we – “

“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Gwaine said, walking to Merlin and leaning towards him. “Don’t think you’ll be changing the topic so quickly. Who is she? How come we never saw her?”

“She’s…” Merlin glanced at the lady Aria, whose glare was still boring holes in the back of Gwaine’s skull. “Like I said, a friend. She’s actually a servant.”

She?” Gwaine pointed at the woman sceptically. “Come on, Merlin, she doesn’t have the manners of one.” Leon had to agree with Gwaine on that point; if anything, she seemed regal. “And is that a sword underneath her cloak?”

“I have to agree with Gwaine on that one,” Elyan nodded. “There’s something about her, Merlin. I’m not sure we can trust her.”

Merlin seemed annoyed. “I’m not asking you to trust her, I’m just asking you to tolerate her for one afternoon. And she hasn’t been a servant for long, alright? She’s new at that job. And yes, she has a sword. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. Now, if you two are quite done with your questions… let’s go.”

Once their friend had walked away, the knights exchanged surprised looks.

“Has he always been so bossy?” Elyan wondered.

“Oh, yes, he has,” a woman’s voice said at their right. But they did not have time to ask Aria any more questions, because she had already joined Merlin and was whispering things at him.

“Let’s keep an eye on her,” Gwen’s brother decided.

“That will be my pleasure,” Gwaine joyfully stated.

“Just leave me out of it,” were Leon’s only words.

The door leading to the inside of the castle was surprising steady, compared to the rest of the ruin, and when they had finally reached it, Merlin turned to his friends and looked at them gravely.

“Right. So, a few rules before we enter…”

“Are you alright, Merlin?” Lancelot enquired, worried. “You seem distressed.”

“Nah, I’m fine. Alright. So. As you are perfectly well aware, this is an anti-Uther-Pendragon sort of group. Therefore, any statement in favour of the man might be… badly perceived.”

“You won’t be getting any comment of that sort from me, mate!” Gwaine exclaimed.

“Lancelot and I neither,” Gwen acquiesced.

Percival, Elyan and Leon agreed as well.

“Aria?” Merlin hesitantly asked.

“Well. Shouldn’t everyone be entitled to their opinion?” she asked, though it sounded more like a provocation than a genuine question.

“Not in this sort of place,” Merlin automatically replied. “Aria, you promised…”

“Alright!” she snapped. “Stop harassing me.”

“You’re the one who wanted to come,” Merlin grumbled back.

“I’m already regretting this choice.”

Leon instantly felt a tinge of sympathy for this person, and decided that he would attempt to befriend her. She might prove an unexpected ally against the knights’ stubbornness.

“I’ll also ask you to try not to speak of your connection to Arthur. They already know that I’m his servant, and they’re alright with it, but I’d rather they not know that I brought the king’s most trusted knights to a frankly illegal meeting. It might kill the mood.”

Elyan shrugged. “That’s a reasonable request.”

“Thank you. So, if anyone asks who you are, just say that you’re a friend of Merlin’s.”

A friend of Merlin’s,” Gwaine repeated, grinning. “You’ve hidden a lot from us, friend.”

Merlin ended up grinning as well. Then he noticed Leon’s worried expression, and sent him what he surely hoped to be a reassuring smile. “Leon? You’ll love it here, don’t worry.”

The knight gulped nervously, and met Aria’s equally worried eyes. A part of him was reassured not to be the only one drowning in his misery.

– Present time –

“It doesn’t feel right, though,” Leon murmured, wincing each time a new vegetable collided with the late king’s face. “Ouch.”

“Feels right enough to me,” Elyan said, shrugging. He was watching the scene with almost unhealthy interest.

“I feel like he’s looking at me,” Leon confessed.

“Impossible,” Aria retorted, seemingly just as upset as he was, if not more. “He’s already looking at me.”

“Stop it, you two!” Merlin exclaimed. “Uther Pendragon is not looking at anyone, because this – this is not Uther Pendragon. This is an inanimate object, and inanimate objects do not look at people. Alright?” Then, lowlier, he added: “I don’t know why you two are so upset about this anyway. When it’s me that people are throwing fruits at, nobody cares.”

“Probably because you deserve it,” Aria muttered.

“You’re right,” Merlin beamed. “Uther deserves much worse.” Then he yelled: “Who wants to set the king on fire?

Aria pressed a hand to his mouth, muttering very un-lady-like insults at the same time. Thankfully, nobody seemed to have heard Merlin’s voice. The courtyard was already very noisy, truth be told.

“I’d be happy to set the king on fire,” a small voice said next to them, and they looked down to see an old man grinning at them, a glint of malice in his eyes.

“NO!” Leon and Aria both barked at the same time, and the old man backed away, visibly shook.

Merlin clicked his tongue, annoyed. “You can’t do that. You’re spoiling the mood.”

“The mood?” Aria repeated, quirking an eyebrow at Merlin. “Which is to throw food at a dead king? I’d say the mood is pretty much spoilt already.”

“Yes. You said that it was a speaking group,” Leon told Merlin accusingly.

“Did I?” the man said distractedly. “Well, they are speaking, aren’t they?”

Right after his sentence, they saw a young woman run to the king’s figure, one tomato in each hand, all the while yelling, “Rot in hell, Uther Pendragon!”

Now that Leon was paying attention, he could hear some recurrent quotes leaving the crowd’s lips. Die of a gruesome death, Be eaten by a wyvern and Starve in hell did come back quite often.

“Either way,” Merlin continued calmly, “you scared poor Rupert. You’ll have to apologise to him later. He’s a very sensitive soul, poor thing.”

“Hang on, you know this man?” Aria exclaimed.

“Of course I know this man,” Merlin retorted, his tone suggesting that he thought that the lady was an idiot. Leon thought that this was quite rude. “I know almost everyone here.” Then his eyes landed on a spot above Leon’s shoulder, and he grinned and began to cheer. “DO IT, GWAINE! DO IT, DO IT!”

“No, no, no, no…” Leon hid his eyes with his hands, and when he looked again, Aria’s face was filled with horror. “Did he just – “

“Throw a chicken wing at the king’s face? Yes, he did.”

May the gods have mercy on us all.

– Twenty minutes earlier –

“Password?”

“Aria, you might want to cover your ears,” Merlin warned.

Then he said something very vulgar including Uther Pendragon’s name, something that Leon would much rather not recount.

He wished he had covered his ears.

The doors to the castle finally opened, and Leon just –

Gaped.

Because this, this, in front of him, was nothing compared to what the castle appeared to be from the outside. While from the outside, the fortress had seemed like nothing but an abandoned ruin, the inside of it was anything but.

It was all that the outside was not: lively, animated, inhabited… and incredibly noisy. There were people talking, laughing and shouting names, and the place almost seemed… convivial, for lack of a better word. There was a courtyard in front of them, though Leon had difficulty distinguishing what was in the courtyard – probably the stuffed Uther whose presence he had been dreading all morning –, and Leon could already see a group of musicians preparing to perform.

Merlin waved at one of them, who waved back.

That’s when Leon noticed the presence of a man in front of them, seemingly the man who had asked Merlin for the password, and he tentatively waved back when the man greeted him joyfully. People here seemed suspiciously friendly for experienced murderers, he couldn’t help but reflect.

Merlin!” the man then said, embracing their friend who eagerly returned the embrace. “We haven’t seen you in ages!”

“Yeah, I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the last meeting,” Merlin apologetically said. “I wish I could, but – well, the Demons picked that exact moment to try and kill the king.”

“No, they didn’t?” The man seemed genuinely offended, whether if it was on Merlin or Arthur’s behalf, Leon could not say.

“With a crossbow,” Merlin added, spatting the word with unconcealed disgust.

Ugh! Some people, I swear… they’ve no manners left, let alone style.”

“That’s what I keep telling them!” their friend heatedly replied, eyes ablaze with indignation.

“Well,” the man said, patting Merlin comfortingly on the back, “everyone knows they’re the worst. I’ve tried to convince Mike not to invite them today, but…”

Merlin’s face fell. “No.” He seemed on the edge of tears. “Don’t tell me they’re coming. Don’t tell me they’re coming, Riley. Please, don’t tell me they’re coming.”

“It’ll be alright, Merlin,” Riley soothingly murmured. “There will be hundreds of people here today. What are the odds of you walking on them?”

“Exceedingly high,” Merlin muttered, arms crossed around his chest.

At the same time, a voice called, “But who is this?

The knights glanced to their left, where a group of men and women was leering at them with no small amount of hostility.

“Do my eyes deceive me,” one of them said, taking a few steps forward and causing the knights to stiffen, “or is that good old Merlin?”

The knights shot Merlin interrogative looks, to which he replied with an irritated scoff. “They know just how to get on my nerves, this lot,” he briefly explained. “They call me this just to annoy me.”

“Don’t forget to run the water for my bath, Merlin,” one of them chanted, while the other exclaimed: “Merlin, go collect some firewood!”

Leon held his breath, wondering how his friend would reach to that. But Merlin simply muttered: “Yep, they know just how to irk me,” and, against all odds, the one to react was Aria.

“The king doesn’t sound like that!” she exclaimed.

“He sort of does, though,” Gwaine apologetically admitted, sounding almost envious towards the men for their perfect imitation.

The knight didn’t miss the way Merlin strode forward, placing himself in front of the knights in what resembled a protective stance. “Cole. Phil. Sara,” he coldly greeted. “Pleasure to see you, as always.” Leon must admit that he almost shivered at the coolness in his tone.

“Well, well, well,” one of the men said. “Still wearing that awful scarf of yours, as I can see.”

“Could say the same thing about your face, Cole. Shame you can’t take it off, eh?”

The man recoiled, glowering at Merlin, and a woman, probably Sara, said: “Eh, Merlin? Here’s a secret for you. We are planning to kill your king… on a Sunday.”

“Oh, and I thought about using poison, but making it look like magic. What do you think?” another one completed.

“And we’ll fill in your survey with wrong answers to distort all your results,” Cole said with a non-too-clever grin.

“Bold of you to assume you’re still invited to participate to the survey,” Merlin muttered back.

“Oh, but aren’t you interested in that speech we’ve prepared? Want to hear how it goes? We hate Uther Pendragon, and now his son must die. It’s nice, don’t you think?”

“Not to mention the motive we picked. Come on, take a wild guess.”

“It starts with d.”

“Just like the name of our band, now that I think about it. Must be a sign.”

Merlin cursed. “Damn them! They know me too well.” Then, smiling falsely, he clearly added: “I hate you all.”

“Yeah,” Gwaine said with conviction, glaring at the men, “back off. Besides, that thing on your heads? It’s ridiculous. Did you literally use… horns?”

“It’s part of the character,” the woman spat, clutching at the horns protectively.

“Yeah, no. It just sucks.”

“Besides, what’s that for a name? The Demons?” Elyan piped in, taking a few steps forward so as to stand beside Merlin. “Can’t believe you’re actually proud of it. Want to hear what I think? I think it’s utterly ridiculous.”

“And the least you could do is use some proper weapons,” Gwen added, standing beside her brother and friend. “Poison? And to disguise it as magic? This is so five years ago.”

“Move on, yeah?” Gwaine continued, nodding fervently as Gwen’s words. “Sometimes, you gotta innovate.”

“Innovation is the key to progress,” Lancelot acquiesced, looking very serious.

“And planification the key to success,” Percival nodded.

“Aka lesson one in murder,” Gwaine said.

“But I guess you lot didn’t make it that far,” Leon couldn’t help but add.

“You’re just novices, really,” Elyan sighed. Then, after a moment when nobody spoke, he glanced at Aria. “Come on, it’s your turn to say something.”

“Do I have to?” She seemed to wish she could be anywhere but here right now. Facing the knights and Gwen’s insistent stares, she relented. “Alright, alright! Err… You should be banned from the list!” Lowlier, she added: “I can’t believe I just said that.”

“Nah, it’s true! You don’t deserve to have your name on the same paper as Morgana’s.”

“And I can’t get over that name. I mean, Demons? Honestly? You shame your ancestors. You’re not worthy of being assassins.”

“And just imagine poor Merlin’s paper. You’ve got Morgana, the Angels of Fate, the Knights of Revenge, and then, bam! Demons. Pfft.

“You heartless imbeciles!”

“Go back to the darkness from whence you came! Demons, my arse.”

“You shame us!”

Leon hesitantly tugged at Gwaine and Elyan’s sleeves. “Uh… Gwaine, Elyan? They’re gone.”

Indeed, the Demons had run away at their words, and hang on just a sec’, were these tears in Cole’s eyes?

“Maybe we were a little too harsh,” Leon muttered.

“Course not! Right, Merlin? Err… Merlin?”

“He doesn’t respond.”

“Merlin?”

Their friend, with tears in his eyes, was staring at them in awe. “You remembered my lessons,” he murmured. “Planification, poison, Morgana… all of it.”

“Course we remembered, mate. Some of us actually listen, y’know.”

Merlin had a sort of absent smile on his lips, eyes filled with genuine happiness. “This might actually be the best day of my life. I feel like a proud father.” He looked at his friends. “Thank you.”

“Our pleasure,” Gwaine solemnly said, while Elyan shot the Demons’ backs a dark look.

“This is a day to be marked in history,” Merlin declared, swiping his eyes with his sleeve.

“Very true, my friend.” They all jumped on hearing the voice, and turned to see the musician Merlin had greeted earlier. “The thirtieth anniversary of our group. This will be a day to be remembered.”

“RAYMOND!” Merlin jumped to hug the man, who cheerfully returned the embrace.

“Merlin.” The man, who must be around his forties, had a tender smile on his lips. “Long time no see. I see you’ve brought friends.” His gaze as he studied the knights was piercing, and his brows furrowed. “Knights, Merlin? Seriously?”

Merlin waved the remark off, still beaming. “Don’t worry. They’re clean.”

We’re clean?” muttered Aria, disbelievingly.

“Merlin…” did Raymond.

“I assure you. They’re clean. Although you may want to keep an eye on your drinks. We’ve got a big drinker among us.” He gestured at Gwaine teasingly, but Raymond didn’t see too bothered by it.

“Bah! ‘S alright. We’re here to party, aren’t we?”

“I’ve missed you.”

“Missed you too, lad.”

“Oh!” Gwen searched into her bag to hand Raymond something wrapped in a red fabric, then nudged Lancelot in the ribs playfully. “We brought a cake.”

Raymond welcomed the cake cheerfully. “I like you.” Then he looked at the knights, and his gaze turned solemn. “Alright, friends. Allow me to introduce this place to you. As you probably know, the Uther Hate Group was created thirty years from now. Today, we celebrate it and everything it brought us. The usual activities will of course be open to all – and by that, I mean the traditional stuffed figure, the therapy group, the poetry club, the tavern and buffet, and the memorial for all those who have lost their life by Uther’s hand.” At that, his face sobered, and he paused for a few instants out of respect. Then he cleared his throat, and smiled. “However, you will be able to do plenty of other things. Our Uther expert will be here, and he will be acting as a coach on how to make a decent father. He has planned lots of surprises, so I advise you to go have a look.; he’ll be in one of the towers. This meeting will also be an opportunity for assassins to meet and learn from each other. Therefore, they will be allowed to give speeches in order to recruit, and there will also be a time for autographs. And finally, come nightfall, there will be a theatre play featuring the death of Uther according to the scenario that received most votes. Any question? Alright, good.” He then glanced at the courtyard, and cursed. “Quick, quick, Mike’s giving a speech! We don’t want to miss it!”

As he was processing the information that had been given, Leon allowed himself to be pulled forward, and watched wordlessly as a red-haired man gesticulated in the middle of the courtyard, on a pyre, right beside a stuffed figure, and gave a speech.

Leon was shocked by the amount of people that had come to listen, and even more shocked at how disciplined they were. None of them dared to utter a word, listening to Mike respectfully. Weren’t killers supposed to be brutes with no manners?

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming. ‘Tis an honour to stand here before you, and an even greater honour to be able to host you in this humble fortress of ours. Plenty of great personalities will be joining us today, among which the famous Demons, of course,” people applauded, “the Deadly Riders,” more applause this time, “and finally the renowned Dragoon the Great!” This time, there was a roar of applause. Merlin, catching Mike’s eye, shook his head frantically, for some reason, and the man sighed. “Sorry, friends, but it seems there will be no Dragoon the Great today.” There were sounds of disappointment from the public. “Sorry, sorry! Joseph will be here, though!” The grins were instantly back on people’s faces. “Well. I won’t hold you here for much longer, so here comes my speech.” All men were staring in awe, awaiting the man’s next words. “Dear Uther Pendragon, we hate you. Signed, the Uther Pendragon Hate Group. P.S., we hate you with all our guts. Have a great time, people!”

People cheered.

Leon stared. “That – that was the speech?”

A man beside him grinned, nudging him in the ribs. “It was great, wasn’t it? I love this guy. I mean, what an icon. Nobody gives speeches quite like he does.”

– Present time –

“For the last time, Gwaine – you can’t just throw chicken at Uther.

“Why not?”

“Why not – because it’s a rule, that’s why. You’re supposed to throw fruits and vegetables at him, things like pears, and tomatoes, and apples – “

Apples? Can you hear yourself speaking, Elyan? You do not just throw apples at people! Apples are sacred, and you would waste ‘em like that? This is the speech of a madman, and I won’t listen to another word of it!”

“Well, how do you think I feel with you throwing the chicken? I was going to eat that chicken!”

Gwaine crossed his arms around his chest, scowling at his friend. “You’re welcome to go get it if you still want it.”

“You’re a child, Gwaine,” Elyan hissed. “A child in the body of a grown-up man. A child in the body of a drunkard.”

An old man, who Leon recognised as Rupert, bashfully piped in. “If none of you is going to eat the chicken, may I – “

Yes!” they both exclaimed, causing the poor man – assassin, the poor assassin – to start once more and recoil.

After one last disdainful snort at Gwaine, Elyan turned away.

“He picked up that sniff from our princess, didn’t he?” Gwaine asked.

Merlin nodded. “He definitely did.” Then he turned to the knights, and frowned. “Where have Gwen and Lancelot gone?”

“They’ve gone to plant some flowers or something like that,” Gwaine dismissively said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh! It seems like fun.”

“We are not doing that,” Aria said with a glare of warning, because the two of them had apparently decided that they would spend the whole afternoon together despite hating each other’s guts.

Sometimes, Leon had difficulty understanding human beings.

“Oh, Leon…” Merlin seemed sorry that Leon wasn’t having a good time. “Why don’t you try it, at least?”

Leon raised both hands protectively. “Oh, no, no, no, Merlin.”

“Just give it a go! You don’t actually have to like it, but it doesn’t hurt to try, does it?”

“Just don’t throw an apple at him,” Gwaine said, before grabbing Percival’s wrist and walking away. “C’mon, Percy, I refuse to remain another second in a place where people lambast apples. YOU SAVAGES!”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the apples doing the whole lambasting thing,” Percival replied, but he followed the knight anyway.

“Here.” Merlin put a tomato in Leon’s hand. “Just throw it. What’s the worst that can happen? Uther’s spirit coming back to haunt you?”

Leon paled.

Aria glared.

Merlin cursed.

“Bad example. It won’t harm anyone, Leon. And if you’re lucky, it might even help you feel better.”

“It still feels wrong,” Leon moaned – yes, he moaned, alright? The situation was a particularly stressful one, and the knight had always been particularly prone to stress. “Stoning the king to death…”

“He’s not the king. Arthur’s the king, and nobody is lapidating Arthur right now. And, for the last time, Leon, this is an inanimate object! Alright? You can’t kill something that’s already dead. Now, throw the tomato.”

“Merlin?”

“Throw the damn tomato, Leon.”

“Merlin, I’m not sure – “

“JUST THROW THE TOMATO, LEON!”

And Leon just –

Threw the tomato.

– Ten minutes earlier –

Merlin, the knights were quick to discover, was quite known in the murder business.

It was quite interesting, watching him interact with the assassins.

Sometimes, he’d engage in a short, but friendly conversation. To a man clad in blue, for example, he yelled cheerfully: “Oh! Hey, Tristan! How’s it going? The family doing okay? I couldn’t help but notice that you hadn’t tried to kill Arthur in a very long time. Last time was – last Christmas, I think. Are you okay? Oh, personal troubles, was it? I’m sorry to hear it. Take care, yeah? Say hi to the family for me!” To a woman with a dark braid, he said: “Heard there’d been trouble in the group? Everything going smoothly now? Oh, no, you’re splitting? So sorry to hear it… You looking for another group, or just doing it on your own now? On your own? Yeah, I think it’s good. It’ll help you find out what you really want for yourself, yeah… Why did you split up? Because Rollo always wanted to use poison? Ah, yes… Must have been annoying. Well, I hope we’ll be hearing from you nevertheless. And don’t forget, it’s not a weakness to be on your own. Dragoon will be giving free murder lessons later in the afternoon, if you happen to be interested. Yeah. See you!” To a young man dressed in a brown tunic and brown breeches, he said: “Gilly! We’ll have a drink later, yeah? I knew you’d join the group eventually! Told you it was worth it not to kill Uther!” To an elegant lady clad in dark robes, he asked: “Had any success in killing Emrys yet? No? Well, better chance next time, maybe.”

Other times, however, Merlin would be less friendly, and so his tone would be similar to that of a father reprimanding a disobedient child. To a young man, for example, he barked: “JEREMIAH! Three times, you’ve tried to kill the king, giving me no word of warning! You can’t keep doing this!” To a rather old man walking with a stick, he shouted: “Liam! I’m still waiting for your motive! Stop avoiding me!”

And other times, people would call him, some friendly and others more hostile. For example, a man dressed in green called: “Eh, Merlin! Come and join us!” At this, Merlin turned to the knights and explained that they’d been trying to recruit him for years – with no success. Another group, however, was obviously no friend of Merlin’s, and Merlin greeted them falsely, with a: “Hello, Titans.” Looking at his friends, he mouthed, I hate ‘em.

After a while, Gwaine said: “Merlin, do you know everyone here?”

Merlin smiled a bit bashfully. “I know a few.” Then: “Oh! That’s Joseph there! He’s great! He’s tried to kill Uther twenty-three times, can you believe it? He practises the art of planting needles in hay dolls. He’s practically a legend around here, so if you’d like an autograph, you’d better go ask him now.”

As they kept walking, taking the direction of the pyre, he animatedly commented the place.

“It’s a great location they found here. Cast a glamour on it, that’s why it seemed so desertic from the outside. The first meeting that was ever held actually took place in an abandoned farm. We’ve come a long way, eh? Have I already mentioned that I absolutely love the Uther Hate Group?”

“Approximately ten times already, yes.” Leon cleared his throat. “Err… Merlin?”

“Yes?”

“I’m not sure that I feel comfortable here, surrounded with potential killers of our king.”

Merlin waved off the remark, laughing. “You needn’t worry, Leon. These men around us are all perfectly respectable killers, very professional and all. They do it all in the rules. They’re exemplary, really. It’s the other ones you should worry about – those who are not on my list. But here? About ninety percent of them are on my list. All perfectly reliable men – except for the Demons, that is. Stay away from them. I’m serious. One of them tried to offer me an apple once.”

“What’s wrong with an apple?” Gwaine cried.

“It was poisoned,” Merlin murmured. Gwaine huffed indignantly, and Merlin nodded. “They’ve no principle, that lot. The assassins’ code is but a distant memory to them.”

Assassins’ code?

‘What? You didn’t think the knights were the only ones to have one, did you?” Merlin chuckled. “Oh, also. Before I forget. Many bands may try to recruit you – I mean, they try to recruit me every week, and since they’ve probably seen us arrive together, they’ll know that you can be trusted. So, yeah. Watch out. Just – make sure you’re polite when you reject their offers, yeah? Wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings.”

“Assuming that they have some,” Aria muttered.

“Which they do!” Merlin snapped back. “Oh, and finally, there’s an acquaintance of mine following us. Rather old, a bit stocky. He comes to the meetings every week and there are chances that he might stalk you, but don’t worry. He’s rather harmless. He just likes – popping into conversations and leaving random comments. He’s quite lonely, I think. Be kind to him if you ever do encounter him.”

Reassuring.

“Well, then. Let’s begin with the tomato throwing thing, shall we?”

– Present time –

Percival was uneasy.

You were the one who wanted to come here!”

“Yes, I agreed to come here to check what was going on, not to watch the king of Camelot be treated like some common… some common…”

If there was one thing that Percival hated, it was fights.

“Is peasant the word you’re looking for? Frankly, I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss! I ended up in the stocks all the time in Camelot, still do sometimes, by the way, and did you ever lift a finger to get me out of there? No. So Uther’s hay-stuffed replica can very well take a few tomatoes to the head.”

Bad luck: he was in the middle of one.

“Merlin, they were throwing chicken at him!”

He never knew what to do when people were fighting in front of him. Was he supposed to separate them? Pretend that he hadn’t noticed a thing?

Gwaine threw chicken at him, because that’s what he does!”

“Gwaine was throwing chicken at the king of Camelot! The king of Camelot! You’ve said it yourself, it’s treason!”

Uncomfortable, that’s what it was.

“Only if you get caught. Oh, don’t look at me that way. You can’t do a thing about it now, being as you are, and don’t think I’ll change you back if you keep behaving like that!”

“You wouldn’t dare – “

Try me.

Alright, he definitely felt like he ought to intervene.

Also, Merlin was a bit scary, there.

“Merlin – “

“I once remained in the body of an old man for a whole night. When I woke, I had cramps everywhere, and could no longer feel my knees, but I stayed in the body. I say it again, Arrie. Try me.”

Time to intervene.

“Merlin? Aria?”

Both heads instantly jerked up, two pairs of eyes simultaneously landing on Percival, and Merlin and Aria froze. “Percival.”

This was... highly disturbing.

“That… was actually quite scary.” He cleared his throat, still not over this vision. “Is everything, err – alright?”

“Of course it’s alright,” Aria said rather gruffly, seemingly avoiding Merlin’s eye. “Why wouldn’t it be? We were just – tell Percival what we were doing, Merlin.”

“We were just…” Aria nodded absently at Merlin’s words, and Percival wished he could be anywhere but here. “I’m just… teaching her a bit of poetry, ‘tis all. She’s worried about the poetry group, fears that she might not be talented enough for it. She has self-confidence issues, you see. Poor thing.”

Percival did not see at all.

All that he saw right now was the glare that Aria was directing at Merlin, and all that he felt was deep confusion.

“Right. I don’t even want to know.”

“Why – why are you here, Percival? Weren’t you supposed to be with Gwaine?”

“I left him at the tavern. He found some sort of apple-flavoured ale and can’t get enough of it.”

“And Elyan?”

“Elyan’s – not here. Haven’t seen him since his fight with Gwaine.”

“Hang on – has anyone seen Leon?”

They all exchanged panicked stares.

“I’ll go get him,” Percival promised. Anything to get away from Merlin and Aria. “He’s probably still by the stuffed figure. Must’ve been knocked out by some tomato or something. I mean, that’s the most likely scenario, isn’t it? Why else would he still be there?”

.

As it turned out, the most likely scenario was not the actual scenario.

Where there had been a crowd gathered earlier, now, there was but one man, turning his back on Percival and facing Uther’s stuffed figure. The crowd was forming a circle around the man and the late king, cheering him shamelessly as he was apparently aiming for the figure’s heart.

Percival hardly paid the cheered man any attention, though, too busy scanning the crowd and searching for the familiar silhouette of his friend. C’mon, Leon!

“P-Percival, was it?”

His eyes met a familiar face, and he gaped as he recognised the killer from a week earlier. “M-Mark?” he said, stunned. “What are you doing here?”

“Same as you,” Mark shrugged. “M-Merlin gave me the address, said that I ought to come. So… here I am.” He chuckled nervously, before noticing the distress on Percival’s face. “Is… is everything alright? Is it because I’m an assassin? Would you like me to go?”

“Oh, no, no!” Percival instantly reassured him, guilt tugging at his heat at the idea of making the poor man feel unloved. “Not at all, I’m sorry. I’m just – worried about my friend. Leon.”

“Oh!” Mark’s eyes lit. “Was he the one who kept plucking the beautiful violets? He seemed like a very decent knight.”

“No, that was Lancelot. The man I’m looking for is a knight with brown curls, do you remember him?”

“Oh, yes! He called me a thug.”

“Did he?”

Mark looked down sadly. “It’s alright.” Then he smiled. “I’ll help you find him if you like.”

Percival was surprised. “Oh – oh, well, that would be – “ But then he felt a hand tug at his sleeve, and looked down to see a small man glancing up at him. “R-Rupert?

Where did all these men keep popping up from?

He had had interaction with more people this day than he usually had in a month! Aria, Mark, Rupert… Who would it be next?

“Your friend,” Rupert simply said, before pointing a finger at… the man who was being cheered.

“Thank you, but that’s not who I’m looking for – “ Percival cut himself when, all of a sudden, the cheered man turned and revealed a face that was far too familiar to him. “LEON?!” Except, this was Leon but also not Leon. The face and body were his, undeniably so, but that expression of pure rage… it was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. The knight seemed possessed. He had no idea that the knight’s face was actually able to display such violent emotions. Thank the gods Arthur wasn’t here to see that.

“Oh, now I recognise him,” Mark beamed. Then frowned. “Though he wasn’t quite so enthusiastic last time. Is everything quite alright with him? He seems a bit troubled.”

Leon, a knife in each hand, was running towards Uther… and Percival could only watch, powerlessly, as the two blades dug themselves each in one of the king’s elbows. He winced. Leon scowled at Uther, and his lips moved as he said something Percival didn’t get. What the crowd said, however, he understood very clearly.

“GO KISS A TROLL!”

“They… weren’t saying that one earlier, were they?” he hesitantly asked, unable to take his eyes off the knight who he no longer recognised. Rupert shook his head negatively, visibly quite upset as well. Percival sighed resignedly. “Well, I guess we all know who introduced it to them.”

Leon didn’t seem to be wasting much time, since he had already grabbed two other knives and thrown them as well. They had come to respectively impale themselves in Uther’s palms, which made Percival wince once more. Oh, this was bad.

Listening to the people speaking around him made it even worse.

“He’s the best element we’ve ever had!” a young woman exclaimed at his right, visibly completely smitten with Leon. “He’s hit the heart ten times, ten! Can you believe it?”

“You’re right, Ellie. He is our champion.”

Other people, however, seemed considerably less happy with the situation, as they complained about Leon monopolising the whole scene.

“I’ve been waiting for my turn far too long already,” a girl said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“He’s been at it for ages!” complained another person.

“Oh, because you think you can do better than him?” a third person said. “He’s our new champion. Get over it.”

And then there were group of people gazing at Leon attentively, almost assessing.

“He’s got good aim.”

“And passion.”

“We’ve been needing a bowman ever since Trion passed away. He might just be the one.”

“Think he’s free?”

“Only one way to find out.”

No, no, no!

If Arthur were to lose his oldest and most loyal knight to a group of assassins, then he would have them all executed, that much was certain. Damnit! How did Percival always manage to find himself in impossible situations? First the quarrel, now this! He hadn’t even been the one to suggest going here in the first place! The only reason he had come was because the poetry group was quite appealing to him, and now – now he was facing his king’s closest knight, hammering the late king with daggers. How had it come to this?

“I’ll go get him,” Percival said, and Mark laid a compassionate hand on his shoulder. Rupert was back to cheering Leon, yelling lines of his own such as, go get buried alive. Percival made a mental note to avoid upsetting the man in the nearest future.

Now that he was paying closer attention to the scene, Percival had to acknowledge that Leon’s display was quite impressive, indeed. Somehow, the knight had found a way to manage dancing, aiming and cursing all at the same time, which was both scary and fantastic. Had the circumstances been different, Percival would have cheered. Things being as they were, he settled with cursing lowly, something he very seldom did.

“No autographs, sorry,” Leon dismissively muttered when Percival at last reached him, tentatively grabbing his arm. He didn’t even give his friend a glance.

Leon –

But there was no point.

Leon only had eyes for Uther – which was actually a very odd way to put it since it suggested some sort of romantical arrangement between the two men, which was absolutely not the case, at least Percival hoped not, oh dear – and Percival’s eyes widened with horror as he saw his friend… literally… run to the stuffed figure and assault it with his blades and fists.

Percival rushed to his friend’s side and grabbed his shoulders, but Leon fought back ardently.

“Leon, it’s me, it’s Percival – “

“Must… hit… the neck…”

“You mustn’t do anything, please, Leon, please come back to me…” At the same time, the men in the background were cheering, go kiss a troll, which, quite frankly, Percival found was quite disrespectful. “And will you stop that!” He glared at them. “I’m trying to talk to him there. Leon. Step away from King Uther, Leon. There are some waiting for their turn, see? Come on, my friend.” Leon was no match for the knight’s strength, and quickly Percival was able to drag him away from the stuffed figure. Eventually, Leon stopped struggling anyway, bursting into tears instead.

“It’s the troll… the troll, Percival!” he sobbed.

Shh, it’s alright, shh, all is well, Leon. We’ll go to the speaking group together, alright? How does that sound? We’ll bring you back. I won’t lose you to a troll, my friend.”

As he was trying to get away from the crowd, Percival felt two fingers tap on his shoulder, and he turned to meet a man’s inquiring gaze. “Eh, you! Your friend here, err… d’you know perchance if he’s part of any group?”

Group?” Percival repeated, a frown between his eyes.

“Well, you know. An anti-Pendragon group. Is he taken, then?”

“Is he…” Suddenly remembering what Merlin had told them regarding any attempt at recruitment from the other guests – make sure you’re polite when you reject their offer –, Percival chose to shake his hand with a courteous smile. “Sorry, but as a matter of fact, he is.”

“Ah!” The man did not seem too surprised, seemingly having no difficulty imagining Leon’s popularity as an assassin. Well, that was upsetting, to say the least. Percival hoped that Leon did not have any other blades hidden underneath his cloak. “All the good ones are taken, isn’t that what they say? Oh, well.” As his eyes began assessing Percival, the knight stiffened. “And what about you?”

.

Therapyyyyyy, here we cooooooome,” Percival chanted as cheerfully as he could, all too conscious of the curious gazes that were drawn to him as he attempted to carry Leon’s half-limp body. He glanced at the people around, met a woman’s shocked stare, and gave a tentative smile. “He couldn’t wait for the therapy group,” he said. “Came here especially for it.”

“Huh.” The person didn’t seem convinced.

“I didn’t come for the therapy group,” Leon’s voice piped in. “I came for the stuffed figure.”

“Yes, you came for the therapy group,” Percival gently reminded him. “Remember the troll incident? Well, now is your chance to put it into words.”

“I don’t want to put it into words,” the knight wailed. “It’s much easier to dug daggers inside his skull.”

“But much less efficient, too.”

Leon shrugged. “Would be, if he were still alive.”

“Which he is not.”

“Lucky man.”

Percival sighed, then glanced around. They were standing in front of the door leading to the therapy group, and he was attempting to evaluate whether or not Leon was ready to address people right now.

That’s when Gwaine showed up.

Friends!” he greeted them, a wide smile plastered on his lips. Ale had loosened his tongue, more so than usual, but other than that, there was no sign of the knight having spent the last hour in the tavern. Percival sighed, both in annoyance and in relief. At least Gwaine was still behaving as his usual self. “This place is great! There’s that drink, it’s called the Bloody Uther, and heavens, it is excellent! You, my friends, should absolutely try it. Fun fact: each time you order, all you’ve got to do is yell, bloody Uther, and he who shouts the loudest gets a free drink. You have no idea how good it feels to just – scream that in the middle of a tavern.” He sighed wistfully. “I love it here. This place? It’s bloody paradise. And the tavern…” He kissed his fingers theatrically. “Definitely enters my top five of drinking places.” Then, eyes jerking between Leon and Percival, and instantly sensing that something was wrong, he quirked an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you two? And why is the small creepy man following you?”

Percival didn’t need to look to know who Gwaine was referring to. “His name is Rupert, so show some respect, you uncivilised brute.”

Gwaine stared. And stared. And stared. “Alright.” He stared again.

I need to hit something,” Leon said.

“Well, there’s that stuffed figure in the courtyard, so long as you don’t throw any apples at it, I’m sure they’ll be fine with you kicking it – “

“NO!” Percival instantly exclaimed, still suspecting that Leon might run off any moment, heading for the courtyard. “And, for the last time, stuffed figures are not supposed to be stabbed or kicked at! You must throw fruits at them! Which… isn’t normal either. Why did I just say that as though it were actually normal?” Horrified, he murmured: “Am I becoming like them?”

“I… have no idea what is actually going on,” Gwaine noted. “Did you two switch bodies or something while I was missing?”

And that is when Elyan decided to join them.

“Hi!” He smiled.

“Kind of you to find some time of us in your very tight schedule,” Gwaine muttered.

Elyan smiled even wider. “I’m just incredibly good at inspiring trust and awe in people. Can’t help it. I guess I just have an… aura, as one would call it.” Then his face sobered. “So. I’ve made my research, and there a few things quite worrying about this place. I’ll go from less important to most important, alright? Firstly, there’s apparently an anonymous donator who will show up tonight. No one knows whether he’s just funding the group, or if he was actually the one who founded it! And his identity remains a total mystery. He’ll take part in the theatre play at nightfall, though. And apparently, he really, really hates Uther. With his guts.”

Percival shrugged. He didn’t care much for that man’s identity, anyway. Elyan seemed disappointed by his lack of reaction.

“Secondly, there’s apparently an enemy gang that’s been hunting this group down for years. Their leader is said to be a very dangerous man, who is determined to eradicate every anti-Pendragon group on this Earth. The Uther Hate Group is one of the few that have managed to resist so far.”

Gwaine beamed. “This is so cool.” Then, frowned. “And… the third thing?”

Their friend looked at them both very gravely. “Mike. Or, should I say, Mikes. I’ve heard at least three people each mention a different Mike. Needless to say, I am very confused.”

“And… that’s the most important piece of news, because…?”

“Like I said, I’m confused! My feelings matter, Gwaine!”

“Never claimed otherwise.” The knight clicked his tongue, irritated. “Geez, you’re all so weird today… especially you.” He pointed at Leon, who huffed indignantly. “Yeah, you’re definitely the weirdest.” He sighed, bringing a hand to his heart melodramatically. “Well, anyway. I’ll need to thank Merlin for introducing us to this marvellous place. Speaking of which, where is he?”

“I reckon he’s inside,” Percival replied, gesturing towards the room.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Gwaine entered the room, followed closely by Elyan, Leon and Percival.

Instantly, they were welcomed by a voice that was very much familiar to them, and Percival frowned in puzzlement.

“– And so, the other day, guess what he said to me? Well, Merlin, if you’ve got time to go gallivanting around the woods and occasionally gather a few strands of grass, then you can most certainly make time for the polishing of my armour. And I go, but, maybe you could ask George to do it – see, George loves polishing –, and he gives me a wide grin and says, no, I want you to do it. I mean, honestly! And strands of grass? These strands of grass are the ones saving his life on a daily basis, so the least he could do is show some respect. But no, there’s nothing more important than the polishing of Sir Prat’s armour.” The other guests were giving Merlin sympathetic glances, visibly very invested in the speech that he was giving. “Oh, and wait till I tell you about the unicorn matter. Don’t shoot it, I tell him, and what does he do? He shoots it. Sometimes, I think that he systematically does the exact opposite of what I tell him to do with the sole purpose of annoying me. Guess what? It works. You know, if there was a scale for clotpoleness in this world, then he’d most definitely reach the top of it.”

As the knights sat on some of the chairs that had been disposed in the room so as to form the shape of a circle, Elyan hesitantly asked one of the guests: “Who… who is he talking about?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know, I don’t care. What matters is the boy is hilarious.”

Another guest leaned towards Elyan to say: “The poor thing. He truly is a sweetheart, and look at how he’s being treated in return.”

“Not to mention,” Merlin was continuing, waving his hands to make his speech livelier, “he’s bloody suicidal, that’s what he is. Ever hears of a dangerous place? Well, then he’ll go running there, regardless of what his servant thinks. Doesn’t care that he’s the king of Camelot, oh, no.”

“I’d... I’d rather think that it’s a good thing,” one of the guests tentatively said. “I wouldn’t want to follow a king who reckons his life’s more worthy than mine.”

“Well, it’s true,” Merlin admitted, “but it’s hardly a reason to take each and every opportunity to endanger his life. Have you ever heard of the Perilous Lands, my friends? From the name of it, it doesn’t sound great, does it? And yet, that’s where he goes to achieve his princely task or whatever.” He waved his hand dismissively, and Gwaine chuckled next to Percival. “The. Perilous. Lands. I mean, who even goes there? Nobody, apart from stupid, ridiculously prattish young princes. And so, naturally, me and Gwaine over there – “ he gestured towards Gwaine, who rose his thumbs up – “well, we follow him and save his neck once more. And what does he do when he sees us? Oh, I can still hear his voice inside my head, as he says, I am supposed to be doing this alone!” Merlin chuckled to himself. “Needless to say, he doesn’t.”

“I think he is talking about King Arthur,” the first man very smartly pointed out.

“Ooooh, is he?” Elyan ironically said, causing Percival to nudge him in the ribs.

“But,” Percival frowned, “isn’t this supposed to be an Uther Pendragon therapy group?”

As an only response, the man shrugged, then he had the gall to shush them both, claiming that they were ruining Merlin’s tirade.

“And, sure, he does have a few redeeming qualities,” Merlin almost reluctantly said, “among which his sense of duty and honour. And yes, he has proved time and again his willingness to lay down his life for one of his subjects’, something that undeniably makes him different from Uther. And he is a good man, never doubt that.” A long list of Arthur’s qualities followed, before Merlin cleared his throat, cheeks blushing. “Nevertheless – “ he paused, frowning, “ – what was my point already?”

“He does it every time,” a man told the knights, his tone undeniably fond. “Complains about King Arthur each time he goes to the meetings. Poor boy. He’s a lot on his mind.” Aria, who Percival only now noticed, huffed indignantly, but the man simply smiled indulgently. “The funniest thing is, he often ends up convincing us that he’s a great king. We’re used to it by now, though, and it’s actually quite entertaining to watch him. As Rupert likes to say, he’s Arthur Pendragon’s best and worst supporter.”

Merlin appeared to be done with his story since he sat back down, nodding slightly at the man who had just addressed the knights. That man was probably in charge with the therapy group, Percival mused. The guests sat at each side of Merlin laid compassionate hands on his shoulders, or sent him appreciative glances. He appeared to be truly popular among them.

“We’ve got some new guests here, I see,” the man in charge of the group said. “Would anybody like to speak first?”

“He would,” Percival instantly said, grabbing Leon’s arm to keep him in place. The knight was keeping a wary eye on the other men, having still not completely recovered from his earlier breakdown. Percival closed his eyes briefly. That scene, he suspected, would remain carved in his mind forever.

The man tsked. “We mustn’t force it out of anyone,” he gently chided, but Percival didn’t recoil.

“Trust me,” he sighed, “you won’t have to force it out of this one. Come on, Leon. Up you get. Think about the troll. Big, nasty troll married to Uther.

Leon reluctantly stood up, until he heard the word troll, that is, and he then cleared his throat. “Erm… hello… my name’s Leon.”

“Hellooooooo Leoooooon,” the group was quick to reply as all gazes landed on the knight, who seemed comforted by the kind atmosphere of the place.

“I… err… thing is, I…” Leon stammered on his words for a solid ten seconds, before the words finally came out. “I was there during the troll episode!

And… Leon spoke. He spoke, and he spoke, and he spoke, and the people listened.

Fifteen minutes later, the knight was sobbing, and so was the majority of the group. “I just never got over the troll episode… the troll was just… standing there! And King Uther, King Uther was… holding its hand!” The guests let out a gasp of horror, truly taken with the knight’s story. Percival himself had to admit that he had had to hold back tears several times during Leon’s tirade, but he had always been prone to cry easily. “And I thought, you’re mean, Leon, because who was I to judge this troll on its appearance? It’s not fair. If I had a pair of tusks and skin rippled as old parchment, I wouldn’t want people treating me differently for it. It’s the inside that matters, not the outer envelope! And so I tried, I tried my best to see in Lady Catrina what the king seemed to see in her, but I just – couldn’t. She smelled so foully, you see. I still wake up, in the dead of knight, haunted by that terrible smell. And then…” He sniffed. “Then, she was queen. Queen Catrina, King Uther called her. She was terrifying.” Many compassionate glances were cast his way. “The writers called this… event… the events of the beauty and the beast.” Lowering his tone, Leon concluded: “But there’s something that haunts me, that won’t stop haunting me: between Catrina and Uther, who was the beauty? Who was the beast? I could never tell.”

People, eyes glistening with tears and one hand sometimes pressed against their lips, began clapping and thanking Leon for his contribution to the group. Percival saw Gwaine himself tap the knight’s back in an attempt of comfort.

“Wow, mate… I had no idea you had so much on your heart. You shouldn’t keep it all to yourself, y’know.”

.

“YOU BROKE HIM!”

“Arthur, calm down – “

“My finest knight!”

“Don’t you think this is a bit of an exaggeration?”

Look at him, Merlin! Just – look at him!”

“I don’t see anything wrong with him.”

“Don’t see anything wrong with him?” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s shoulder, forcing him to look Leon’s way. Leon, who was currently scribbling words on a parchment at an impressively quick rate. “He hasn’t stopped writing those poems of his ever since we arrived! This – this is at least the ninth poem he’s written ever since we came here!”

Merlin feigned innocence. “So, what? Oh, dear, the knight is writing a poem, and the gods forbid a knight should ever have a sensitive soul. Well, I’m sorry, Aria, but Leon is an excellent poet – now, deal with it!”

“He’s written an entire poem dedicated to different manners of death for the King of Camelot.”

Latest King of Camelot,” Merlin rectified, annoyed. “No one’s killing you, though I must admit feeling slightly tempted right now. And again, so what? I actually think it’s a great topic for a poem. Besides, the poem he’s written was about deaths not including magic; now, he’s writing the with-magic version. His commitment to this exercise is admirable, and I like the idea of Uther being killed in good, old-fashioned manner – the burial in bricks was a particularly nice touch in my opinion.”

“It’s treason!” Arthur hissed.

Merlin rolled his eyes. “When people insulted Catrina, a troll, Uther called it treason, too. Want to hear my opinion?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Treason,” Merlin ignored him, “is but a king’s word. What we’re doing here, maybe it’s treason, but mostly, it’s just dealing with our grief and anger. There’s nothing wrong about that.” All of a sudden, the conversation’s tone had shifted to a much more serious note, and Merlin could see, from the look in Arthur’s eyes, that he had noticed that as well. Good. “All the people around us – well, not all, but a good portion of them –, they’ve chosen this, this path, instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence. They’ve chosen to express themselves, and you’re damn lucky they have, because in a kingdom where people are forced to keep quiet, well, inevitably, at some point, things will break. People will break, because that’s what they do. And blood, blood will be shed. Yours, theirs. If you don’t allow people to speak, Arthur, then they’ll find other ways to make themselves heard. This way, trust me, is much better. What is wrong with what we’re doing, exactly? We’re writing a few poems. Saying a few words. Throwing a few apples. Sorry, Gwaine.” The knight was not listening, though, which was good, because otherwise he would have quickly guessed Aria’s true identity. “My point is, we’re not doing anything wrong. What we’re doing, here – it is nothing in comparison to what Morgana is planning to do, to what Morgana has done. Not to mention Uther’s own wrongdoings.” He sighed. “These are your people, Arthur, and you might not approve of what they’re doing, but I – I’m proud. Proud of what the Uther Hate Group has managed to achieve: unify people originally linked by their common hatred, and invite them into a group where – a group where there’s love. Compassion. Solidarity. Humanity. Did you see how compassionate those people were towards Leon? How kind their gazes were? What we’re doing here may seem like nothing to you, pure provocation, but I assure you, it’s not. Do you – do you know what Lancelot and Gwen are doing right now? Yes, they’re planting flowers, but not for any reason. They’re doing it for all those who’ve lost their lives or their loved ones to Uther’s tyranny. And I don’t know about you, Arthur, but this is the kind of kingdom that I would love to live in. A kingdom whose people are united by feelings such as compassion, and empathy, and peaceful sadness. A land where people communicate instead of threatening each other. It’s not perfect, and sure, it’s not very respectful, and yes, the circumstances aren’t great and I’d much rather live in a kingdom with no such bloody history. But things are what they are, and given what Uther’s put them through, given what Uther’s put us all through… well, I think it’s the best we can do, and I think we’re doing damn well, too.”

Merlin, despite knowing that what he had said had been borderline treasonous, cared not to remove it. He’d meant it, with all of his heart, and would stick to it until the end. He would not soften his words for Arthur.

But Arthur did not get angry. He simply gazed at Merlin, and the warlock saw something akin to understanding gleam in the king’s eyes. Then, after a few seconds, he calmly nodded.

“Alright,” he said.

“Alright?” Merlin was hesitant.

But Arthur was not. “Alright.” He gave him a small smile, small but genuine, albeit a bit sad. “You’re not wrong.”

“I’m right, then.”

“You’re not wrong,” Arthur stubbornly repeated. Then, his eyes turned playful. “But don’t think that means I’ve forgiven you for your words at that stupid therapy group.”

He bit his lip, cheeks heating. “A man’s got to express himself,” Merlin seriously said.

“Which you already do, on a daily basis, in my presence.”

Merlin said nothing to that, knowing that Arthur was speaking the truth. Instead, he glanced at the other tables around them, curious to see what the other knights had come up with. After the therapy group, they’d all gone to the poetry one, which Merlin had been quite looking forward to. Leon’s transformation had proven a huge surprise to them all, especially to Arthur, who had been stunned to hear the knight speak of all the times that Uther had wronged him. Ever since the poetry group had started, though, the knight had not uttered another word, too focused on what he was writing to pay his friends any more attention.

Gwen and Lancelot, Merlin noticed, had actually joined them. Gwen had a beautiful white flower tucked behind her left ear, and the sight of it made Merlin smile fondly.

Watching his friends write poems happened to be a very distracting occupation, too.

Lancelot, unsurprisingly, was writing a poem about Gwen. Wait, actually, no, he was not. He had, but the poem he was writing right now was entitled, Ode to Kilgharrah. Merlin winced. Something in the rage with which his friend was scribbling down the words led him to believe that this would be anything but an ode. He made the internal vow to make sure Lancelot and Kilgharrah never interacted again.

As for Gwen, sat alongside the knight, she seemed very proud of what she had achieved… that is, until somebody came to her and said: “The poem’s not supposed to be a nice one!”

“Oh,” Gwen murmured. “But… I thought that was the whole principle of the thing: a challenge. To write something beautiful about somebody ugly in all ways.”

Gwaine, a few feet further, was showing his poem to the man in charge of the poetry group. “Bad,” the knight simply said, smirking proudly. “That’s my poem. Simply… bad. I think it expresses the essence of Uther’s soul quite well, don’t you?”

And as for Elyan and Percival… they seemed to be struggling in the writing of the poem they had decided to compose together, each having a very different view of what they ought to write.

“Something short. And striking. Something that says, Uther’s full of shit and you know it, I know it, the whole world knows it. Hey, what about that, exactly? It sounds nice, doesn’t it?”

“No way, Elyan. We need to write something clever. Something satirical, and clever enough so that the people won’t know who it is we’re talking about. What do you think of replacing Uther with a goat, or something? That could be the name of our poem. The goat and the peacocks.

“And… we would be the peacocks?”

“I’ve already dreamt of being a peacock. They’re so elegant.”

Merlin and Arthur both started when the leader of the poetry group came to sit in front of them with a friendly smile. Pointing at Leon discreetly, he whispered enthusiastically:

“This one’s great. Why didn’t you bring him in here sooner, Merlin? The man’s a genius! Know how many poems he’s written since he got here? Come on, take a wild guess!”

The warlock laughed nervously, trying to avoid the glare Arthur was pointing at him.

“I… really would rather not.”

Eleven!” Gerard, the leader of the group, said, regardless of Merlin’s reluctance. “Eleven, Merlin! Not to mention three jokes related to his parenting, one caricature and two essays, one of which is about all the reasons why Uther was unworthy of the troll he married. The whole reasoning leads us to the deduction that, in the end, the troll was lucky to get out of this marriage. And now – now, he’s rewriting the events with an alternative ending, in which the troll divorced Uther. Merlin, this is a genius’s work! He is unstoppable, and I am loving every instant of it!” Then his eyes suddenly lit. “Hang on. What if we published him? Better, what if we got him to join our anti-Uther gazette? A job has cleared up recently, and I can already tell that he would be the man for the job. I’ll ask Mike if he’d be alright with your Leon entering our group – I won’t lie to you, it’s been quite a while since we’ve recruited anyone, but it’s also been ages since we’ve come across anyone like him.” Then his eyes widened. “Other than you, that is. Mike would be exhilarated if you were to join us.”

“Ah!” Merlin shook his head, searching for another topic to discuss, other than his possible involvement with a rebellious group right in front of the current king of Camelot. Hum.

“Did you know that your friend already asked me where the next meetings would be? And I can tell that there is not one drop of alcohol in his veins, unlike most of our clients who can get quite… intense. But him? It’s all natural in him, all innate. It’s a natural gift, and it’d be a shame not to use it. Oh, Merlin, thank you ever so much for bringing him here. He’ll become one of our most faithful clients, that much I can already tell.” Then he brought a hand to his mouth in an overly dramatic manner. “Do you think I could get him to… well… have a drink with me? It’s just that he’s such an inspiration! Most people who come here only wish for a way to vent out their anger for Uther, but he – he’s creative, Merlin! Generations come and go without a man like him setting foot on this Earth. Do you think he’ll accept to talk to me?”

At this, Arthur snorted. “He’s hardly a celebrity.” Merlin nudged him in the ribs, and Arthur nudged back.

“Oh,” Gerard said, frowning. “And who is this?”

This,” Merlin crushed Arthur’s foot with his own to get him to remain quiet, “is Aria, a very kind serving girl from Camelot.”

Serving girl?” Arthur repeated with indignation in his tone.

“Yes, you know,” Merlin said smoothly, knowing how very condescending he must sound and enjoying every moment of it. “That’s what they’re called in Camelot.” He then turned to Gerard, who seemed bemused. “She’s not from here,” he explained. “She only arrived recently, but we bonded quite quickly.”

“Oh? And what brought you here?” Gerard leaned closer towards Arthur, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “What do you blame King Uther for?”

Taking pity on poor Arthur, Merlin spoke in his stead. “Oh, she just came for the flowers. Aria… loves… flowers. Her sister was the same, you know.” He almost added a, pff! Pendragons, but fortunately, managed to refrain it.

“SHE LOVES POETRY, TOO!” Percival yelled from a few tables further, before turning back to he and Elyan’s paper, and smacking Elyan’s hand, Elyan, who had taken advantage on the few instants of inattention to scribble down some words. “Hey! Stop that! We are not turning Uther into a beetle! I thought we’d agreed on the goat.”

“Oh, you do?” Gerard beamed.

“Yes,” Merlin replied, internally cursing Percival, “we both love writing poetry together.”

“Oh, do you now?” The grin that was now plastered on Gerard’s face was telling Merlin that he had understood something else entirely, but Merlin had no time to correct him, since already he had turned towards Arthur with a very serious look in his eyes. “Isn’t it a bit difficult, though?”

“What is? Being with him?” Arthur seemed like he was ready to enumerate all of Merlin’s flaws, but Gerard was already replying, causing Merlin to smirk.

“No, no, no,” he chuckled. “Anyone would be lucky to end up with someone like Merlin, here.”

“Huh.” That, of course, was Arthur in all his splendour of speech.

“No, what I mean is, isn’t it hard, to have to share his heart with the King of Camelot?”

A choked, “What?”, came out of Arthur’s mouth.

“Well, it’s quite obvious.”

“Oh, is it?” Arthur’s tone sounding terribly smug, and it was Merlin’s turn to shoot him his darkest glare. “Do you mean that… everyone… knows?”

“Well, it’s not like he hides it well. Get him to speak of his King Arthur, and you can be sure he’ll end up telling you of how great a king he is. Actually, you don’t even need to get him to speak of him. His name will pop up at any conversation at some point! King Arthur this, King Arthur that... ‘S quite tiring, in the long run. We rarely see such devotion, these days… Oh, and there’s the poems,” he said with a knowing look. “I do hope he writes you poems, too.”

“Poems?” Arthur frowned, visibly unsure which emotion he should feel.

Merlin bit his lip, feeling his cheeks begin to blush. “Oh, there’s no need for – “

Arthur rose a dismissive hand at him, the gesture indisputably regal – and prat-like, needless to say. “No, Merlin. I’m quite interested in the… poems.”

“I can’t believe Merlin hasn’t told you. You should be proud, boy!”

He tapped Merlin’s shoulder playfully, and Merlin smiled uneasily. “Yeah, well…” He glanced at Arthur, and thought strongly, please, don’t kill me. The way Arthur’s eyes dangerously glittered made him swallow nervously.

“Oh, let me tell the tale,” Gerard says.

“If you must…” Merlin smiled a smile that said, I hate you, but Gerard’s eyes were already filled with the sincere joy of he who is about to tell a good story, and there was no stopping him now. All Merlin could do was contemplate his imminent demise as Arthur’s ire would very likely strike him where he stood.

A bit dramatic, maybe?

Bah. Arthur certainly deserved it.

“See, on his first day here, Merlin’s scribbling furiously on the paper, like your friend Leon, here, though there’s a hint of softness to his eyes, y’know, and so I tell myself, well, there’s one lucky girl somewhere in this world. Thing is, not everyone comes to the poetry club solely to write things about Uther – more and more people come here just to find a peaceful place to write their love letters. So, naturally, I assume he’s got a lover hidden somewhere, and so I come closer, to take a look at what he’s writing. So I peer over his shoulder, yeah, and what do I read? Clotpole. Oh, I say. Is that an endearment of some sort? And he just – he just chuckles, shakes his head, and says, if only you knew, before going back to his writing. Naturally, I’m more and more intrigued. And as I keep reading, I come across some other quite surprising phrasings – for example, each word that flows out of your mouth equals to damnation for those who hear you. There’s also a few lines about servants’ rights, quite a reasonable number of requests regarding that matter, and a demand to make the stocks of Camelot better adjusted to one’s height. Naturally, I’m surprised, and Merlin here – oh, Merlin’s quite the secretive man, you see. It takes me a good three weeks to figure out who he’s writing to, and several months to figure out that these are not actually love letters – well, not the conventional type, anyway. And so, one day, he leans towards me with that look of conspiracy in his eyes – he’s drunk quite a bit of ale, too, which is rare for him –, and he whispers, want to hear a secret? And it turns out that this cheeky lad has been sending each of his poems, anonymously, to the castle of Camelot, insisting that they be delivered to the prince himself – because King Arthur was prince at the time, you see. Hah! You were hilarious that night, Merlin. Spoke of it as though it were your greatest accomplishment. We should do that again one of these days! Get drunk and tell ourselves all our deepest secrets!”

Merlin, unfortunately, could indeed picture that very night, and he could remember his genuine, childish pride brought by the idea of having found yet another way to insult his king without him ever having enough evidence to punish him for it.

And Arthur, much more unfortunately, seemed to be remembering the said poems as well, since all of a sudden, Merlin could feel his accusative stare burning the already blushing skin of his neck.

“Well,” Merlin begins, instantly knowing that this’ll only make matters worse, but overwhelmed by the urge to just say something, “it was just a few times. For fun.”

A few times?” Gerard looked at Merlin disapprovingly. “Don’t underestimate your work, friend.” Then he turned back to Arthur to say: “He literally sends one letter a week, not to mention the seven letters that he wrote in a row on our latest meeting. He is brilliant.”

“For my defence,” Merlin muttered, “the seven letters in a row were written on a Monday, and it is a universally acknowledged fact that Mondays are the worst.”

Both Arthur and Gerard ignored his remark.

“This Arthur is a lucky man. Nobody’s ever written that many poems to me before.”

Hatred poems,” Arthur managed to articulate. “They’re… hatred poems.”

“Yeah, sure,” he shrugged. “Whatever you wanna tell yourself, Aria.” Then his eyes turned mischievous once more. “But I’ll tell you what.”

“Please don’t,” Merlin begged.

Surprise: Gerard paid him no attention. “That first time I saw him scribbling all of those poems with such intensity to his gaze, I could’ve sworn he was writing poems of another nature entirely, if you get my meaning.” At that, he wriggled his eyebrows exaggeratedly, and Merlin squirmed in his seat, uncomfortable.

“I insulted him!” the warlock vividly complained, eyes widening as his cheeks grew hot.

“Oh, come on,” Gerard waved dismissively at him. “We all know that’s how you behave with people you like.”

“Do not!”

“Definitely do,” Arthur confirmed. Then glanced back at Gerard, insisting: “Hatred letters.” Merlin almost took pity.

“Hatred letter, love letter… who cares? The point is, he wrote his King Arthur poems once a week and went to the trouble of sending them, each time making sure they could not be traced back to him, and that – that’s some serious dedication, girl. Few men are that dedicated to their loved ones. And trust me, there’s nothing more romantic than one nice caring letter every once in a while. Hell, I wish I had that.” His eyes flickered enviously to Leon, and Merlin guessed that the knight must fit every criterium that Gerard had regarding the ideal partner: calm and tempered – not that he was showing it right now –, faithful beyond doubt, and unpredictably creative.

Saddened by the pain in Gerard’s voice, Merlin quickly tried to reassure him. “He’ll write poems of other matters. Soon. Once he has…” He glanced at Leon, who, visibly calmer than earlier, was now taking his time to dip his quill in the inkwell. There was quite a consequential pile of parchment on his right, too. Merlin felt impressed. “Once he has…” He bit his lip. He wondered how long Leon could go on writing before his inspiration ran out. When one had been keeping it all inside for so long, he guessed it only made sense that it should emerge so violently, and yet it was shocking. He was suddenly grateful that he hadn’t had to experience the sight of Leon attempting to stab Uther’s figure. “Err.” He swallowed. “Evacuated it all out of his system.”

Gerard seemed doubtful, though. “Will he?” In spite of not looking at Arthur, Merlin could practically hear him rolling his eyes, and so he crushed his foot once more. He was quite getting used to it. “We’ve got to face the facts here, Merlin. Look at him. He’s already begun writing drafts for novels.” Gerard whispered: “I don’t think he’ll be satisfied with stopping at poems. This is an ambitious man, Merlin. The prospect of our love stands no chance against such dedication.” He briefly looked at the ceiling, probably metaphorically, the gods, and cried: “Why can’t a secret nemesis send me letters, too?”

“Err, technically, my nemesis is Morgana,” Merlin hesitantly began, but stopped as soon as he saw the tears in Gerard’s eyes. The man was now sadly walking away, leaving Arthur and Merlin alone. “So.” The warlock cleared his throat, carefully avoiding his king’s eye. “Fun chat, eh? So… Leon and Gerard. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I think they could be rather cute together – “

You.” Artur’s fingers curled around his forearm, pulling him up from his seat. “With me.”

“Okay,” Merlin squeaked, “that’s fair.”

Arthur sort of growled, and Merlin sort of begged for his life, and less than a minute later, Merlin was sort of backed against the wall as they were both dealing with this in a very mature and adult way, which was not surprising given that they were both very reasonable men.

“IT WAS YOU!”

“How many times are you going to say it? Is there something specific you’d like me to say? Besides, I did many things, I am many things, so, quite frankly, I should not even bother to respond to that – “

“YOU.” Arthur’s now long, golden hair was causing tickles down his neck, and Merlin suspected it might be a new type of torture Arthur had recently come up with. He’d spent the whole afternoon blaming Merlin for making it this long.

“Alright, alright, it was me,” Merlin admitted, examining his nails at the same time at a poor attempt to look relaxed. “Though I’ll have you know that Rupert did send a few of his poems as well.”

“Oh! So that’s where the unrelated poem about sweet potatoes came from. Good… good to know.” Merlin smiled tentatively, glad for the distraction.

“Alright,” said Arthur. “I’m calm.”

And then he proceeded to yell at Merlin for a solid five minutes. It became a bit hard to watch his nails after a while, especially with having Arthur so close to him, and so he proceeded to observe him intently, content with marvelling in the colour of his eyes. It was a miracle that the knights had not yet uncovered the truth, really. Oh, and Merlin sort of wanted to kiss him, what with Arthur watching him so heatedly, but he was a bit unsure about the timing, and so he wisely refrained, resolving to simply watch, which was nice, too.

“Oh, my God, it was you!” Arthur exclaimed. “Oh, Heavens above!” Merlin found all the swearing a bit exaggerate, but he had quite a nice sight on Arthur’s lovely face, so he frankly couldn’t complain. “And will you stop – looking at me like that, you – you devil!” At that, Merlin couldn’t help quirking an unimpressed eyebrow.

Arthur’s eyes landing on him, he felt compelled to smile angelically. “Ouch! What was that for?”

Finally, after a fair amount of kingly hair-pulling and rude ear-tugging – the unfortunate ear happening to be Merlin’s, surprise, surprise –, Arthur cleared his throat, and he took a deep breath.

“How – how come you never told me of this?”

“You… never asked?” Suddenly gaining confidence, Merlin began developing his argument. Acting offended was something he was good at. “In fact, I seem to recall that you never once told me about the letters! Me, your faithful servant!”

Arthur seemed unfazed. “Are you really making me a reproach right now? Is this really how you’re choosing to play this thing?” Merlin stared back stubbornly until Arthur finally relented. “Alright. Alright. I never told you. Why should I have, pray tell?”

Merlin’s jaw dropped. Giving him a are-you-an-idiot look, one of those looks that were usually reserved to Merlin himself, he ignored Arthur’s stare of indignation, and said, “Ever heard of threats?”

“A threat?” Arthur downright chuckled. “Yeah, right. Just so we’re clear, Merlin, which letter are we speaking of specifically? The very long one, where you complained about the way the servants were treated in our – my household? Or maybe the pamphlet in which you zealously criticised monarchy and claimed that I had the brains of a toad? Oh, yes, very threatening, enough to make a man cry himself to sleep at night. Wherever did you learn such an offensive language, Merlin? I wonder. Clotpole, dollop-head, cabbage-head – oh, that’s right, you didn’t – you invented it.”

Now, that was too much.

The warlock huffed indignantly, feeling a bit of the Dragoon in him surge back to the surface. How dared he?

Then he met Arthur’s cool gaze, and decided to promptly shut up.

 

 

The warlock huffed indignantly, feeling a bit of the Dragoon in him surge back to the surface. Me, invent words? Arthur, obviously, saw right through him.

“My God, you did, didn’t you? Oh, my God, you made it all up! I… I can’t believe you made me believe that clotpole was an actual word.”

“That,” Merlin gravely said, “is one of my greatest accomplishments. I’ll ask you not to denigrate it, and I’ll have you know that I take full credit for it. Did you never wonder why the only person bothering to use those words was your anonymous correspondent?”

“Alright. Alright.” Arthur waved a hand somewhat weakly, showing that he was willing to let it go for now. “So, you’ve been committing direct treason for what? Two years now?”

“Well, technically I’ve been committing treason since the day I was born by your father’s standards, what with the magic and all, but – yeah, yeah, alright, two years,” Merlin relented under Arthur’s piercing gaze.

“What I don’t get is, why?”

“The first time I wrote you a letter, I was really angry, you know. Really frustrated and all. So I sent it, and it – it felt good. And so I carried on, and as it went, I found that I could… well, I could be somebody that Merlin could not. I could speak of my magic freely. Tell you of my opinion. In Camelot, I kept hiding, and to finally be able to say things… well, it was probably just an illusion, but it did make me feel like less of a hypocrite.”

Arthur’s face considerably softened, and his fingers brushed Merlin’s wrist lightly. A tentative smile played on his lips as he made an attempt to lighten the tone of the conversation.

“Well. At least now we know who that curious love poem Percival got came from,” he haughtily declared. “It must’ve got lost on the way to my chambers.”

Merlin bit his lip. First, he was worried. Then, he proceeded Arthur’s words, and he just – laughed. “No… You think that… No! Oh, I’m so sorry, Arthur, but this one must have actually been written by Rupert. He’s a big fan of Percival’s, see. Aw, but if you want me to send you a couple of love poems, you need only ask – ”

“Shut up, Merlin.” Arthur’s cheeks were flushed. “Well. That still doesn’t tell us who sent my father that series of essays I found on his desk.”

Merlin glanced at the ceiling, poorly trying to display an innocent image.

And he, of course, failed terribly at it, since it took Arthur approximatively one second and a half to find him guilty.

“My Goodness! That was you, too, wasn’t it? I had to retrieve those papers before my father saw them! I can’t believe it! You sent the King of Camelot a bloody series of essays regarding his inability to succeed as a father and a king! Why – why would you do that?”

“He deserved it,” Merlin shrugged. “Oh,” he added, suddenly curious as to what Arthur had thought of these weekly letters. “Did you enjoy the seventy-seven articles that I sent you afterwards about what made Uther such a terrible father? It was really hard to keep it that concise given the number of things that had to be said. Originally, I wanted to call it The failings of Uther Pendragon, and yes, I know, it was stupid of me. Much too wide a topic, I know, I know. My mistake, and I learnt from it. So I had to reduce my articles to the parental field, which was a bit of a shame, but still very interesting to write about.”

“You…” Apparently, Arthur had forgotten about the seventy-seven articles until now. And he appeared to be fuming. “Jesus, Merlin! That was not even in the theme! You’re supposed to write poems, not bloody pamphlets or articles or essays!”

“Oh,” Merlin grinned, “so now there’s a theme?”

But he didn’t even get the pleasure to see Arthur blush, since already another thought seemed to be crossing through his king’s mind as he paled. Oh, oh. Arthur paling was rarely a good sign.

“Merlin…”

Merlin did not like that tone either.

Who else did you send those ridiculous poems of yours to?

“Huh?” He went back to inspecting his nails.

“Answer me.”

“Just a – just a couple of people,” he stammered. Then beamed. “But don’t be jealous! Nobody received as many letters as you did.”

“I’m not…” Arthur rubbed at his temples, closing his eyes briefly. He seemed quite tired with Merlin, which was quite rich coming from him, considering that he was easily the most tiring person in this universe. “Alright, who else did you pester as you pestered me for all of these years?”

“Oh, Arthur… you’re – you’re special. I didn’t pester anyone quite as I pestered you. You should know by now that the spot that you occupy in my heart is unique and – “

“Who. Else?”

So flattery would get him nowhere. Nice. Good to know.

“Well, you. Obviously.” Merlin chuckled nervously, trying to appear as innocent as he could, but Arthur’s mask did not falter. “Err, Uther. The knights?”

“Are you asking or are you saying?”

“Saying, saying, definitely saying. Gwaine even replied to me once, which was quite nice. Who else was there? Hm, let me think. Ah, yes! Gaius – well, only once, because he instantly found me out. Claimed my head was as big as your waist – ha! Can you believe him? So, err, your uncle. Oh, and Mary, remember Mary from the lower town? Yep, that’s the one. A few nobles who I particularly disliked. Oh, and I definitely sent Morgana a few. Who else? Hm, let me think – “

And obviously, Arthur picked that precise time to actually pay attention to what Merlin was saying. “My – my uncle?”

Merlin decided to play dumb, and as looked back at Arthur, he feigned perplexity. “What?”

“Merlin, you said my uncle.”

“Pretty sure I didn’t,” he said with a forced laugh.

“Pretty sure you did.”

“Look, Arthur, can you just let me complete the list here?”

“I bloody well can’t, since you just said my uncle – “

You’re the one saying it over and over again, Arthur! I didn’t say anything, so stop harassing me, please – “

“Merlin, you literally said it – “Arthur’s eyes suddenly widened in a once more overly dramatic manner, and Merlin thought, he knows. His glare said, oh, no, you didn’t. Merlin smiled tentatively, shrugging as innocently as he could. I did? “Did you,” and Arthur’s tone was deadly serious, “or did you not,” he brought his face closer to Merlin’s, “tell my uncle that he ought to shave his head?”

“I… well, Arthur, the thing is… see, the circumstances… ‘s just that… okay, okay, I’ll stop, I’ll talk, just stop tugging at my ear, my ears are sensitive! Yes, I did. I did, and I don’t regret it. You may punish me if you like, I don’t care, but it won’t change the fact that I would do it all again. The only crime I committed was attempting to make this world a better place, and trust me, those sitting next to Agravaine at council would be grateful if they knew, because the stink, Arthur, the stink – you may punish me all you like, but the one thing I will not do is apologise. I won’t apologise for trying to spare this world from the stink of – “

“Alright, I got it, I got it! Just – stop talking about my uncle’s hair! How would you like it if I criticised Gaius’s?”

“At least Gaius washes them. Which Agravaine clearly doesn’t. Maybe he does it out of sympathy for Morgana. Hm.” Merlin hadn’t thought of that before, but it did seem to make sense. Suddenly remembering what the discussion was truly about, he continued: “So go ahead, punish me! Charge me for treason! But the next time you’ll see him, you’ll remember my words, and you’ll know that I was right. At least my death will have been fore a good cause. A just cause. A noble cau – “

“Alright, alright! Please, do shut up. I need to think.” Arthur waved his hand in a frankly offensively dismissive manner, and Merlin glared daggers at it. “There’s no need for you to be such a martyr about it, Merlin. We’ve already got Gwaine for that.”

Vexed, Merlin rolled his eyes, thinking that Arthur ought to shut up.

You shut up,” Arthur retorted, and Merlin stared indignantly. He hadn’t even said anything! “Merlin…” The king looked exasperated, which was no more than he frankly deserved. “Have you even the faintest idea of what the consequences for your actions were?”

“I know what the consequences were not,” Merlin not-pettily-at-all said. He glared at the floor. “The hair was still there.”

Arthur said Merlin’s name once more, as though just saying his name in a variety of different tones would have some sort of effect on Merlin’s conscience. It did not.

“Agravaine almost set out an inquiry about the letter,” Arthur patiently explained. “I had to talk him out of it, to invoke a fool’s prank, to claim that those were simply the words of an idiot, and even then – “

Ouch,” Merlin muttered, and Arthur glared at him. Great. He made a sound implying that he was hurt, and Arthur simply glared at him for it. How nice it must feel to be acknowledged.

“You’re not supposed to complain,” Arthur exclaimed, “you’re supposed to be thanking me!”

Merlin shook his head negatively, a slight grin tugging at his lips. “Mh… nope, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be the other way ‘round. After all, I’m the one who wrote the poems, aren’t I? You should be grateful.”

Hatred poems, Merlin, they were hatred poems! And treasonous ones, at that!”

“Will you stop calling them that?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Merlin. Would you rather I call them Merlin’s silly little letters?

“Now that you’re asking, I’d rather you call them The Weekly Compliments. I’ve recently come up with the name and I must say I’m quite proud of it.”

“Unbelievable, you are unbelievable.”

“You’re worse,” Merlin reminded him. “You’re the one who’s in love with me.”

Arthur’s answer was nothing like what Merlin had been expecting. “God help me,” he murmured, “but I am.”

And when he said such things, well, then how could Merlin do anything but kiss him?

.

“Alright,” was Gwaine’s introduction as he went to stand in front of Elyan and Percival, waving at Lancelot and Gwen to beckon them closer. His breath, noted Percival, smelled of apple, which was altogether not surprising given that the man spent quite a lot of his time in taverns. “We’re in a bit of a situation, here, and I’d like to hear your opinions.”

“Can it not wait?” Elyan complained, still scribbling words on their shared parchment. “The peacocks were just about to eat the goat.”

“The pea – what even is a peacock?”

At that, Percival glared. “You don’t know what a peacock is?”

“It’s a type of… err, bird,” Elyan murmured, rubbing at the back of his neck and sounding quite unsure.

“You mean you don’t know what it is either?”

“Well, not specifically! But at least I know it’s a bird.”

“There’s just no hope for you,” Percival sighed, before a realisation struck him as his eyes brushed the paper. “That’s why you wanted to write that the peacock had fangs! It was not a figure of speech, you genuinely thought that peacocks had fangs! Goodness!”

“Shut up,” Elyan muttered. “And don’t you laugh!” he exclaimed at his sister. “You completely misunderstood the concept of the poem, so you’re no better than me.”

Guinevere kept beaming all the same.

“Folk! I have news, alright?”

“Just… speak plainly, Gwaine,” Elyan sighed, and Percival could only understand his wariness. When it came to the knight, what he called a situation could go from the king being kidnapped to there simply not being any ale left in the tavern.

“Long story short: Merlin’s cheating on Arthur with Aria.”

At the knights’ greatest surprise, Gwen was the first to react, and her reaction was, to say the least, disconcerting.

She laughed.

“Oi! I’m serious!” Gwaine protested.

“Oh, I know,” she said, before promptly dissolving into another fit of giggles. She then beckoned Lancelot closer and whispered something inside his ear.

Elyan wrapped his arms around himself, keeping a careful eye on his sister. “First Leon,” he murmured, “and now my sister. We are all progressively going mad in this place.”

“Glad you didn’t count me on that list,” Gwaine instantly said, beaming.

“That’s because you were already mad to begin with,” the knight retorted.

Lancelot laughed whole-heartedly, and the knights exchanged intrigued glances. “Him too?”

“Ignore him,” Gwaine muttered, visibly vexed. “Merlin’s cheating on Arthur! How come you lot are not any more surprised?”

“Gwaine,” Percival tried to explain patiently, “Merlin and Aria are just friends.” He found himself thinking back upon Merlin and Aria’s fight from earlier, and was deeply troubled by the memory of it. Ugh. He did hate fights.

Gwaine snickered at his words. “Ha! Friends. Is that what you call it these days?”

“What?” Percival stared.

“What? Gaius keep saying that!” Gwaine shrugged at the knights’ perplexed glances. “The fact remains, the way they look at each other – you can’t tell me you’re blind to that, too, Percy!”

“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to side with Gwaine on that one,” Elyan said apologetically. “There is some serious romantic energy between the two of them. Definitely more than what links the common of friends.”

“If friends at all,” Gwaine pointed out.

“There is definitely some spark between them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re acting on it. Come on, my friends. We all know our Merlin, here! He’d never cheat on our king!”

“He’s right,” Percival acquiesced, still not entirely convinced by Gwaine’s words. “Are you quite certain that they were engaged in… romantic activities, when you saw them?”

“You could just say kissing, Percival, y’know.”

“Well,” Percival coughed uncomfortably, “were they?

“Mh, let me think… one of them literally had their tongue shoved in the other’s mouth, so, err, yeah, I’m pretty damn sure that they were kissing, Perce!”

“Alright, alright. Damn.” Percival winced. “There’s no need for you to be so graphic about it, Gwaine. You could have just said they were kissing.”

You’re the one who asked for details!”

“I asked for proof, not for a goddamn visual description!”

“Well, I’m sorry if I’ve offended your delicate sensibilities, Percival, but these were facts! They were literally, literally, literally kissing!”

“Yeah, well, now, I’m literally, literally, literally disgusted and upset!”

“Well, I’m more upset than you, since I actually saw the whole thing, and while usually, I wouldn’t have been opposed to the sight of two beautiful human beings engaging in romantic activities, my ethics actually stopped me from enjoying the show, damn it!”

Elyan cleared his throat.

“Are you sure you’re quite alright there, mate?” he asked hesitantly, resting a tentative hand on the knight’s shoulder. “You seem… tense.” To say the least, Percival thought.

“Are you an idiot, Elyan? Of course I seem tense, I’m literally combusting from the inside! This is bad, people. Really, really bad!”

Percival and Elyan exchanged a worried glance. “I wouldn’t quite say that – “

“This is the worst thing that could possibly have happened!” Gwaine seemed like he was about to cry, and Percival would be lying if he claimed that the sight of it left him unfazed.

“Gwaine,” he began with a gentle smile. “Try not to take it all so personally, yeah?”

The knight laughed a joyless laugh that caused both Percival and Elyan to recoil in one same movement. “You bet I’m taking it personally! This is Merlin and Arthur! The Merlin and Arthur. You lot are just monsters.” He shook his head, seemingly disgusted, and turned so that he no longer faced his friends.

Lancelot was the one to break the silence. “Gwaine. Did you hear them… say anything? Apart from the kiss,” he hurriedly added on seeing Gwaine instantly open his mouth, probably to give more details.

“We’ve heard more than enough about that kiss,” Elyan whispered, and Percival could only nod with no small amount of conviction. “It’s like learning of my sister’s romantic adventures. Just… ugh.”

“No, they didn’t say anything in particular, why?”

“Could have helped us understand what happened there,” Lancelot said, shrugging. “Who knows? Maybe it was an accident.”

“Oh, no, no, no. I know a kiss when I see one, Lancelot, and this was a hot one. Definitely not an accident.” He turned to Percival, who may or may not have moaned in despair. “Oh, I’m sorry, Percy. Did I hurt your delicate sensibilities again?”

“Shut up, and suggest something instead,” Elyan retorted in Percival’s stead.

Gwaine’s face slightly lightened as the knight visibly lost some of his previous distress, clearly having an idea in mind. “Well… we’ve got to get rid of Aria. To somehow get her out of the picture. And so, I’ll seduce her.”

Guinevere’s face jerked up, her expression perplexed. “I’m sorry? How did we go from Merlin’s cheating on Arthur with Aria to Gwaine is now seducing Aria? What connections did I miss?”

“Pure logics, Guinevere. Pure logics. I will drag her away from Merlin, and to do that, I must seduce her. It won’t be an easy task, nor a pleasant one, but… I’ll do it. I will seduce Aria.”

Gwen once more burst into laughter, and a glance exchanged with Lancelot was all it took to cause the knight to chuckle as well.

“Don’t be a hypocrite, Gwaine,” Elyan told the knight. “We all know you’ve been waiting to do that since the moment you saw her.”

“Elyan!” Gwaine exclaimed, falsely affronted.

“Is this truly a good idea?” Percival intervened. “I’m just not exactly sure you’re her… err, type.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m everybody’s type, Percival.”

When Percival looked at Elyan for help, the knight simply shrugged apologetically. “Well, he’s got a point.”

“Err… friends?”

“What, Lancelot? We are in the middle of planification, here.”

“I just thought you’d like to know that Leon’s gone missing. Again.”

“Tell me that this is a joke.”

“This is a joke?”

And damn it, Guinevere was laughing again.

.

Arthur Pendragon was, by nature, frustrated about a certain number of things – a number which, during the last couple of hours, had been increasing at a rather suspiciously high rate.

He could not even claim that the day had begun well, since it most certainly had not. Truth be told, he believed that it had all begun no earlier than the night before, when his idiot of a manservant had rushed into his chambers with his usual absence of grace, a basket of fresh laundry unsteadily tucked underneath his elbow, and come to stand before Arthur, saying that they had a very big problem.

“Well, not a big problem, per se,” Merlin had babbled then, cheeks flushed, trying to busy himself with emptying the basket and placing the neatly folded clothes where they belonged. His hands, Arthur had noticed, had been shaking quite a lot, as they did each time that he found himself distressed. He had also seemed quite eager to avoid his king’s stare. “Just – something that you might like to be made aware of. Or not. In fact, maybe it’s better if you don’t know. The only thing that you need to know is that I’ll need to borrow some of your knights tomorrow, probably for the whole afternoon.”

And he’d said that in such an assured voice, his tone suggesting that he was actually entitled to making such demands, that Arthur hadn’t been able to do anything other than laugh at his manservant’s absurdity.

You’ll have to borrow some of my knights?”

What would Merlin come up with next? Building an altar in Camelot to honour his favourite Uther hating murderers? In fact, he had already attempted that thing, and almost succeeded, too. Arthur shuddered just to think of it.

Arthur had looked Merlin in the eye then, head slightly tilted to the side, and had waited for his infuriating servant to realise his mistake.

“That’s what I just said, yes,” Merlin had replied, frowning at Arthur as though he were the irrational one, apparently unaware that he could not just say such things to the king of bloody Camelot’s face!

The king had instantly stopped laughing to stare at his servant disbelievingly.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Merlin had added, visibly mistaking Arthur’s incredulity for concern, “they’re all perfectly alright with it. In fact, they’re the ones who wanted to come – to do that – thing. And it’s just a few knights – Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan, Percival, Leon. It’s all perfectly appropriate.”

“And yet you spoke of a problem,” Arthur had pointed out, giving up on attempting to make his servant see reason and deciding to head straight to the point.

“Wrongly!” Merlin had squealed in a manner that, had the circumstances been different, would have certainly been the subject of some jest of Arthur’s.

“Merlin, I’m only going to ask this once,” he had very slowly said. “What do you need my knights for?”

“Not much. They’d just like to meet some friends of mine who, erm, who happen to be involved in the, uh, charcoal business.”

Arthur had stared. “In the charcoal business.” Stared. Frowned. Then, he understood. “They’re going to that hate group of yours, aren’t they?”

“Firstly, it’s not a hate group, but a support group. Secondly, it’s not mine. And thirdly – thirdly, well, yes, they are going there. You… sure you’re alright with that?”

“Why would I not be alright with that?” Arthur had replied then, with a big, fake smile plastered upon his lips. Merlin had beamed. “My knights, off to some secret meeting with my manservant, preparing to speak ill of the late king, my father! What is there possibly to be worried about?”

“Oh. You were… being sarcastic.” Merlin’s smile had faded as realisation had dawned upon his face. Arthur had fought the urge to bury his face into his hands. “Oh, but come on! It took us ages to convince Leon to come with us! Please, Arthur!”

“Why on Earth would you want Leon to come with you?” Arthur had frowned, doubting that his most loyal knight would be much inclined to joke about the dead king with his other knights. Wouldn’t it just be easier for Merlin and his traitorous knights to just leave Leon behind?

“Well, we’ve each got different motives for this, you see. Gwaine simply wants to see Leon drunk, and reckons it’s a great opportunity to do just that. Percival doesn’t want to be the only one charged with the task of bringing Gwaine back to Camelot when ultimately he enrols in a killer group of some sort. An I… I, Sire, as unbelievable as that might seem to you, merely wish to see my friend happy.”

“THAT’S NOT HOW YOU MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY, MERLIN!” Arthur had finally snapped, beginning to pace furiously across his room and stumbling over a pile of clothes that Merlin hadn’t taken to laundry yet. “Couldn’t you just… buy him a… a… or something?”

“Buy him a what?”

“I dunno! Something!”

“Well, here’s the thing, Arthur! I don’t know what to offer him, because the man’s a bloody fortress!”

“So instead, you’re bringing him to an illegal meeting that’ll no doubt cause him severe anxiety?”

“Nah, it won’t! Leon’s the most composed man I know. I’m sure he’ll be alright. And either way, that’s not the point here. The point is… will you let us go tomorrow? Please?”

After a few seconds of internal deliberation, Arthur had finally nodded, a smile slowly dawning on his face.

“Alright. You can go.” Merlin had grinned back, and Arthur had almost – almost – felt bad about shattering his hopes with his next words. “But I’m coming with you.”

Their conversation had ended with the door snapping shut behind a very furious Merlin, and a beaming king wishing his servant a very good night indeed.

Naturally, Arthur had considered this to be a battle won on his part. What he ought to have remembered, though, was that there were no battles won when Merlin was involved. Merely short instants of joy and triumph, closely followed by terrible decision-making on his servant’s part. He ought to have remembered that. He really ought to.

“YOU TOLD ME THAT THE POTION WOULD MAKE ME INVISIBLE!”

“Huh.”

“Do not huh me, Merlin! You said it would turn me invisible, not bloody – female!”

“Wish it could’ve made you mute as well.”

“Merlin, what am I?”

“Do I have to spell it out for you, clotpole?”

“I am really going to kill you one day, Merlin.”

“Keep your voice down, my lady. Wouldn’t want anybody overhearing you threatening the king’s manservant, now, would we?”

Arthur was a girl. Woman. Female. Whatever you wanted to call it.

Like Morgana, or, or Guinevere, or even Hunith, and, oh, dear, he was going to be sick.

“There’s no need to be quite so dramatic, Arthur. You Pendragons…” Merlin had rolled his eyes, before visibly taking pity of Arthur and trying to soothe his spirits. “Yeah, your body is female, as is that of half the inhabitants of this country. Surely you can survive a few hours like that – actually, I’d say you’re even more handsome this way.”

Ignorant the deliberate jab, Arthur had glared. “Turn. Me. Back.”

“I can’t seem to remember the spell at this instant. Hm.”

“Merlin…”

“Come on, then. Gwen and the knights are probably already waiting for us. Hurry up, princess.”

MERLIN!

Gwen and the knights, indeed, had been waiting for them. During their ride, Arthur had already elaborated the perfect scenario – he would introduce himself as a queen from a distant land having recently inherited the crown, but eager to find out more about the other kingdoms so as to learn from them.

Merlin, however, had been quick to tear that scenario to pieces by introducing Arthur as some – some – some serving girl!

And that was not the worst, oh, no. The worst part of it all was Gwaine brushing the back of his hands with his mouth, and just… kissing him there. Not even asking for his permission! Just rushing to his side and sticking his dirty lips on Arthur’s very clean hands! How did women bear it? he wondered. He could now recall Morgana complaining about quite often in the old days, claiming that this or that man’s lips had lingered on her skin longer than courtesy allowed. At the time, Arthur had merely mocked her, saying that wielding a sword required much more effort than being kissed than a man.

Now, however –

Now, without a doubt, he would pick the sword.

Guinevere and Sir Leon, thank goodness, had demonstrated great kindness towards Arthur, and as for Gwaine… well, Gwaine, quite taken with the place and especially the tavern, had quickly lost some of his interest in Arthur.

Things had finally seemed to get better.

But then, there had been the stuffed figure, and the people throwing fruits and vegetables and weapons at it – and let us be frank, there being a stuffed figure of his father being molested in the courtyard was no easy sight to get out of his head.

Then there had been Sir Leon, unexpectedly plunging into rage-tainted madness.

Not to mention Lancelot and Gwen who, for some reason, seemed intent on winking and raising their thumbs each time they saw him.

And all along, there had of course been Merlin, Merlin, who seemed to spend a great majority of his time actually complaining about Arthur to all the people around him. Merlin, sending him bloody anonymous death letters.

Arthur most certainly did not deserve that.

Not to mention his current body.

There was nothing wrong with the body, per se, except for the hair. The hair was long, and itchy, and it kept getting into his sight. Merlin had tried to braid it for him, but Arthur had instantly decided that he hated the feeling, and had set his hair loose, half in genuine seek of comfort and half in defiance for his manservant. Thank the gods, he had managed to avoid the dress, quickly putting on his hunting trousers and tunic before Merlin could present him some of Morgana’s old dresses. That had not avoided him, however, the lewd glances that some men had cast his way, nor the surge of rage that had risen within his chest. Again, how did Gwen and Morgana bear it? Something definitely had to be done about this, and he would look into it as soon as possible.

The fact remained: Arthur hated this.

Hated this situation.

Hated these people.

Hated that Merlin seemed to spend half his time finding new ways of insulting him and the other half forging friendships with murderers, hated that his most loyal knight now appeared to be completely ruined, hated that Merlin was currently conversing with a complete stranger about bloody father issues, and hated that, right now, Gwaine was saying and doing odd things that included leaning far too closely into Arthur’s personal space and – oh, goodness, was he now touching his hair? What on Earth was wrong with this man?

Back off!” Arthur barked at the knight before storming off, hurrying to Merlin’s side so as to demand explanations.

“Yes, so, according to me, the greatest flaw in Uther’s parenting, in Uther’s ability as a father, can easily be explained by his lack thereof as a person. Every child needs a model, yes? But when the said model is a man-women-and-children serial murderer, well, unequivocally, there will be serious consequences on the child’s well-being since, at times, it might be difficult to conciliate being a good son and a good person.”

“That is very true, Merlin, and very rightly put. I would also like to add that the said father’s inability to admit his mistakes may play a major role in his ability to succeed as a just father. Adults make mistakes, and to acknowledge those mistakes is essential in – “

“Excuse me?” Arthur tapped on Merlin’s shoulder. “I need to speak with you.”

“I’ll talk to you later, Bill!”

As Arthur dragged Merlin away, he frowned on seeing the fondness in the Uther expert’s gaze as he looked at Merlin, visibly full of admiration and appreciation for his manservant. It suddenly occurred to Arthur that this place was as much Uther Pendragon’s hate club, as it was Merlin’s fan club. He did not know how to react to this piece of information.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, deciding to go straight to the point, “what would you say, hypothetically, if someone were to come to you and call you names of the most peculiar sort?”

“Names… of the most peculiar sort?” Merlin had a perplex expression on his face as he rubbed a confused hand against the back of his neck, and Arthur hated how attractive the gesture looked on him.

“Say, if somebody called you… kitten. Or things like that. And, and leaned into your personal space, and commented on your physical attributes, and even dared to wink at times – “

All of a sudden, Merlin snorted. Arthur glared at him, very much offended.

“Oh, my God. Who has tried to seduce you?” Then he glanced around them, his eyes stopping on Gwaine, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. “He tried to seduce you! Dear me! Gwaine tried to bloody seduce you!”

“Shut up, Merlin. I am the King of Camelot and you’ve no right to laugh at me.”

It didn’t stop his servant from laughing loudly, even though he did try to regain some of his composure after a few seconds of utter hilarity.

“But why would he do such a thing? Did he say why?” Merlin enquired.

Arthur’s reaction was instantaneous. “Oi! I’ll have you know I’m pretty.” Then, realising what he’d just said, he looked around to check that nobody had heard him, feeling absolutely mortified, and sent Merlin a threatening glare. “Forget I ever said that.”

“Nah, you’re right,” Merlin nodded, his eyes calmly brushing over Arthur’s face. He sounded serious. “You are pretty.”

“I am a man, Merlin,” Arthur firmly retorted, ”you don’t get to call me pretty.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Also, err, he called me beautiful.”

I call you beautiful!” Merlin pointed out.

“Yes, well,” the king muttered gruffly, “you’re not Gwaine, are you?”

At that, Merlin smiled all too smugly, and Arthur hit him on the arm in retaliation. There were a few seconds of silence, and then Merlin was laughing again.

“Stop laughing!”

“Of course I’m laughing, it’s hilarious,” his stupid servant replied, a stupid smile tugging at his stupid lips.

“Shouldn’t you be – defending my honour, or something? That’s what I’d do – what I do!”

Merlin laughed once more. “Oh, right. Apologies, Sire. Shall I proceed to furiously glare at Gwaine and wave a war hammer at him, then? I’m sure this should prove a very efficient method.”

But before Arthur could think of a reply for such insolence – he certainly did not glare furiously at people, thank you very much –, there was a familiar voice attracting both their attentions.

“Oh, great! We’re right in time for the quiz. Come on, friends. I want to know what percentage I am of Uther!”

Elyan. Dragging with him a very worried looking Percival, and beaming Lancelot and Gwen. Leon, Arthur noted with a tinge of concern, was nowhere to be seen.

“He’s down at the pyre,” Percival explained, and Arthur felt a slight tinge of compassion on seeing the obvious exhaustion in the knight’s eyes. “I asked Mark and Rupert to look after him.”

Mark? Was that per chance the assassin from the other day? Arthur turned to Merlin quizzically, but his servant was looking elsewhere, taken with a sudden interest for the walls. Alright, then. Arthur guessed that he had his answer. He promised himself to dig into the subject further later and, in the meantime, to keep Merlin close to him. Cuffing his manservant on the back of the head, he inquired, quite pleased with the regal intonation of his tone:

“A quiz?”

“Oh, yeah.” At that, Merlin beamed joyfully, his entire face glowing with happiness. Arthur wanted to cuff the idiot some more, and maybe kiss him. “I helped conceive that one. It gives you a grade stating how much alike to Uther you are. Would you like to try it – “

“Shut up.”

“Alright,” he cheerfully replied.

“NOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOO! IT CANNOT BE!”

Gwaine, gesticulating furiously in the room, seemed to be in quite a state of shock. Merlin approached him hesitatingly, laying a tentative hand on the knight’s shoulder, while Arthur made sure to remain at a respectable distance from the knight.

“Gwaine? What – what’s wrong?”

The knight buried his face in Merlin’s neck – in Merlin’s bloody neck, what was wrong with Gwaine? Arthur seriously needed to have a talk with his knight and how infuriatingly often he seemed to lay his hands on his servant –, and, oh, dear, were those actual tears in his eyes?

Could it be that he had finally realised the moral dubiousness of their actions here, mocking a dead king with poems and pyres?

He took one long look at Gwaine’s face, and mused that this outcome was very unlikely to be true.

“I am sullied forever, Merlin,” the knight was sobbing, clutching at every bit of his manservant he could catch, which frankly was ridiculous, “forever!”

“Surely it can’t be that bad,” Merlin tried to soothe him, patting him on the back and sending Arthur a distressed glance. Arthur shrugged back at him, showing that he was just as lost as Merlin. To be honest, he wasn’t that worried himself; Gwaine always had had a flare for the dramatics.

“Oh, but it is!”

“Gwaine, do not – please do not blow your nose into my – into my scarf, please, Gwaine, please do not – “

Arthur abruptly averted his gaze, unwilling to witness such a repulsive scene, but the way that Merlin trailed off in his sentence and the cries of disgust that emitted the knights told him everything that he needed to know.

Now that was just disgusting.

He vowed to himself that he would burn the damn scarf at the first occasion he got.

“H-how about you keep it, eh?” Merlin laughed nervously, and Arthur shrugged. That could work as well, so long as he never had to lay eyes on the sullied piece of fabric again. “Here you go. My scarf is now yours to blow your nose into as often as you fancy. Isn’t life great? Just – please wait until it’s actually off my neck before blowing into it again, yeah?”

“Oh, no! I don’t deserve it, Merlin! And I don’t deserve any of you!”

The knight had accepted the scarf all the same, and was now blowing his nose quite loudly into the piece of flashy red fabric. Merlin was still carefully rubbing circles against Gwaine’s back, an expression of pure shock etched to his face as he regretfully contemplated his lost scarf.

“Alright, that’s enough!” Elyan suddenly exclaimed from where he was himself rubbing circles against Percival’s back. “How about you bloody tell us what’s going on here, before poor Percival swoons?”

Percival, indeed, seemed quite struck by the scene, and Arthur felt a surge of worry for the knight’s mental health. Usually, Leon was the one ending up with the role of worrying for everyone’s safety, but, things being as they were, he could guess that Percival had inherited the unpleasant role. He had been quite patient so far, that much Arthur had to acknowledge, given that Elyan and Gwaine weren’t exactly the easiest knights to be around.

“’M sorry, Perce,” Gwaine murmured, finally getting the scarf away from his leaking nose. Arthur winced.

“It’s alright, Gwaine,” Percival replied. “Just… speak to us, yeah? Or else you’ll end up like Leon.”

Arthur did not appreciate the parallel.

“Yeah, yeah. Yeah, alright. Out it goes.”

Gwaine muttered something unintelligible to the point that even Merlin had to lean forward to hear, causing the knights to groan in frustration.

“I GOT NINE OUT OF TEN, ALRIGHT?” Gwaine finally screamed. “YOUR BLOODY TEST CLAIMS THAT I’M NINE OUT OF TEN LIKE UTHER BLOODY PENDRAGON, AND I AM DEVASTATED!”

Eyes were widened, brows were furrowed, but no tears were shed – except for Gwaine’s, of course.

“Devastated,” Arthur scoffed, though no one listened to him. “So would he be if he knew, trust me.”

Elyan, in an attempt to soothe Gwaine’s anxieties, pointed out the fact that surely, the questions couldn’t be very specific.

And, of course, since Merlin was incapable of keeping his mouth shut, he chose that specific moment to feed Gwaine’s anxieties by enumerating questions from the test.

Would you deem yourself unworthy of your wife and children? Have you ever committed genocide using grief as your fuel and as a poor way to legitimise your lack of humanity? Are you suffering from high incompetence when it comes to dealing with your –

Taking huge strides forward, Arthur grasped Merlin’s forearm and squeezed. “I think that’s quite enough, no?”

“I’m Uther!” Gwaine kept sobbing.

“Why did you design that quiz, again?” Arthur whispered into Merlin’s ear.

“Um… fun?” Merlin shrugged apologetically, before sliding a hand behind Arthur’s neck to tug him a little closer.

“You’re an idiot,” Arthur muttered, though there was no true heat to his words. His own hand slid down Merlin’s forearm to gently hold the young man’s hand.

“Better than to be a prat.”

“Alright, lovebirds!” Arthur felt a flash of annoyance aimed at whoever it was breaking their moment, but, as it occurred, the one who’d spoken – the man that they named Bill – had been in fact addressing Gwen and Lancelot, who were leaning in each other’s embrace. “Let’s proceed to the vote, shall we?”

Gwen smiled warmly at the man, while Lancelot raised both thumbs at him, but, as soon as Bill walked away, they both turned to Merlin with interrogation in their eyes.

Merlin sighed. “Seriously? Am I the only one who actually pays attention to what happens around here? We are going to discover which scenario of Uther’s death was the most popular this week. Y’all should pay better attention,” he finished reproachfully. “Except for you, Gwaine. I completely understand your situation, and if you need a few moments to collect your spirits, then I perfectly understand. It’s not every day that you’re told you’re like Uther.” He grimaced distastefully. “Again, you’ve got all my support and, of course, my condolences.”

“Thanks, mate.”

“Condolences? Who died?” Arthur asked, frowning.

“My self-esteem,” Gwaine retorted as though it were obvious.

The knights nodded with conviction.

Arthur’s eyes then landed on Bill, who was brandishing a big, wooden box and had begun to draw small pieces of parchment from it.

“On each piece of parchment,” Merlin whispered, “is an idea for a scenario of Uther’s death that was put there by a guest. In the end, Bill will count which idea’s come back the most, and that’s what the theatre play from tonight is going to be about.” Then, he grinned. “I can’t wait!”

“Wait, we could suggest a scenario?” Gwaine, all previous anguish forgotten, now seemed genuinely disappointed. “Why didn’t you tell me? I had tons of ideas!”

“I don’t know,” Elyan muttered back, “but I’m afraid somebody told Leon. I’d be ready to bet that half the scenarios in there were written by him.”

“And that is the tenth death by troll asphyxiation scenario we’ve received!” Bill observed, beginning to frown.

“Oh, I voted for that as well!” Merlin proudly announced, beaming.

“I did not need to know that,” Arthur murmured.

“Oh, excuse me, Billy?”

“Yes, Merlin?”

“Could you please add another vote for death by troll asphyxiation? It’s from Kilgharrah. He couldn’t come, but asked me to vote in his stead.”

Kilgharrah?” Arthur whispered frantically at Merlin.

“Yeah, the dragon. Come on, I told you about him a dozen times already!” And Merlin had the audacity to look annoyed.

“Hang on.” Arthur took a deep breath. “You mean to say that even a bloody dragon is part of the Uther Hate Group?” Was half of his kingdom part of this group, or what?

“Well, if you must know, he’s more of an honorary member… and he really, really hates Uther, so it’s only fair that he should get a say in what death is performed tonight.”

That was it. Arthur was definitely going mad.

He almost missed Bill’s blanch face as he inspected another piece of parchment, and the crowd’s instant whispering.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked to no one in particular.

“That’s hardly language for a lady,” some man complained next to him.

“Sod off!” he sharply retorted, having lost all his patience since the moment Gwaine had dared to try and seduce him.

“I – I’m not sure,” Merlin replied, face having lost some of its colour as well. “This is – we need to speak to Mike.”

“Yeah, so,” Elyan began, visibly not worried at all about what had just happened, “about Mike, I think I finally get it. There’s Mike, who’s in charge of the stuffed figures, and then another Mike, who is in charge of the therapy group, and maybe there’s a third one, but I’m not entirely certain, I can’t remember the name of the man who made his speech at the beginning – “

“Hi!” a voice interrupted him, and they all turned to face a man who was waving at them politely. “May I have a word? Oh, for those who don’t know me, I’m Mike.”

“Oh,” Elyan chuckled dangerously, brows frowned in suspicion, “are you?”

.

Embarrassment was not a good look on Percival. He just knew it.

Whenever he got embarrassed, his hands would begin to shake, eyes flickering from one corner of the room to the next, revealing his urge to just disappear, and as for his thoughts… well. They got messy. Real messy. It seemed to him that this day was just an endless succession of embarrassment, concern, regret, loss, and more embarrassment.

So, yes. He knew that embarrassment was a terrible look on him, but he could hardly do anything about it, could he?

And the fact that Gwaine and Elyan had just decided to mount some sort of ambush on the unfortunate man who had shown them nothing but kindness so far – well, this fact certainly did nothing to help matters.

Why did they have to be so outstandingly rude? Percival just – he just didn’t get it. When people were nice to you, you were supposed to be nice in return, not to glare at them in hostility!

And so, paralysed by the unpleasant feelings that were overwhelming him, all that Percival could do was stare in utter bafflement as Gwaine, damn him, began to walk in bloody circles around the man, probably at a poor attempt to intimidate him. Percival frankly didn’t see the point. There just – there was no point. It upset him rather greatly.

“So,” Gwaine smoothly said, and Percival stiffened, wishing he could just disappear. Maybe if he thought it hard enough, it would actually work. Disappear, disappear, disappear. “You’re the one they call Mike.” It did not work.

It visibly simply served to make matters worse, because Elyan – Elyan, for heaven’s sake, who was supposed to be sensible! – chose this specific moment to start imitating Gwaine’s truly irrational behaviour –

– and so there they were, two knights of Camelot, friends of the king, walking around a regicide group’s leader and challenging him about his name, of all things.

Honestly, Percival was beginning to reconsider the multiple offers he had received earlier in the day to join regicide groups. Maybe then he could convince them to start setting knights as targets as well, beginning with Gwaine and Elyan.

“I… truly don’t know,” Mike? replied, casting a hesitant look Percival’s way, who instantly looked away, thinking, I want to disappear. Please allow me to disappear. Mike cleared his throat nervously. “I mean, there are five of us that are called Mike, so I guess it would be more accurate to say that I am one of the Mikes.” He chuckled, but the two knights didn’t waver.

“Huh.” Elyan scowled.

“Alright, friends, alright,” Merlin began, but then Gwaine –

Gwaine, the bloody idiot, said “huh” as well.

“There’s no reason for you to sound so offended!” Mike ardently protested. “It’s just how things are, eh? I’m as much a victim of it as you are.”

If not more, Percival reflected wisely. Unfortunately, the two other knights didn’t seem to see it that way.

“Huh,” Elyan said again.

Will you stop that!

“Yes, they will stop that,” Merlin firmly asserted, giving the two knights the kind of look a parent would cast their child’s way.

While Gwaine at least had the good grace to look ashamed, Elyan did no such thing. Instead, he just kept scowling, and, keeping his eyes locked on poor Mike, went to stand in a corner of the room. And he just… stayed there. Glaring.

Percival shivered.

Stop that,” he whispered at his very scary friend, pinching his arm ruthlessly. “It’s creepy."

“Is it?” Elyan turned to beam at him, suddenly looking much more adorable than his previous behaviour should have allowed him to be. “It’s exactly what I was aiming for. Cheers, Perce.” And then he went back to, well… Glaring creepily.

Percival was torn between questioning his life decisions and questioning his birth itself. Needless to say, it was not a happy moment. He should have known that things would go downhill from the moment Leon had begun throwing rocks at Uther, though. He should have left back then. Stupid him.

Vaguely hearing Mike speak of an issue that he was sorry to bother Merlin with, Percival felt his interest pique ever so slightly.

“He’s back,” Merlin said lowly, “isn’t he?”

Him speaking lowly didn’t stop the rest of the room from hearing what he said… nor from reacting.

“Back?” Elyan’s head jerked up.

Guinevere and Lancelot began whispering in conspiration to each other.

“Back – who – hang on – who is? Who is back? I want – I want to know.” Gwaine was eloquent, as ever.

Back?” Aria muttered, and yet somehow, she was the one Mike paid attention to.

“Oh,” he said. His gaze then came to rest on Gwen as well. “Oh. I hadn’t realised we had two ladies among us.”

Two ladies?” Merlin’s friend repeated, eyes incredulous, throwing glances around her as if she had somehow forgotten Gwen’s presence. Percival frowned at her odd behaviour, while Merlin leaned towards her to whisper something in her hear. “Oh, yeah. Yes. Of course. Ladies. That’s me. Ha, ha, ha. Pure lady.”

But then, as Mike took a few steps closer, presumably to kiss her hand or some courtesy of the sort, Aria abruptly recoiled and rose a hand up in the air in command.

“Don’t.” She simply said, eyes fixed coldly on the man, and Percival reflected that she was at this instant much scarier than Gwaine and Elyan combined.

“Oh,” Mike smiled tentatively, “but I mean you no harm, I merely meant to – “

“I know what you meant to do, and you’ll do none of it, or I swear to you, I will unleash a storm upon you that will make you wish that you were never bo – “

“Alright!” Merlin intervened once more, tugging Aria back near him. Then, turning to Mike: “But seriously, though. Don’t.”

“Right.”

“So.” Merlin beamed, as though the entire room hadn’t just been terrified by his creepy, mysterious friend. Even Elyan seemed shook. “He’s back, then?”

“I’m afraid so,” Mike said gravely. “He even left a note.” He emphasised the last word with clear distaste in his tone.

“A note!”

“I know, right? What a serious lack of taste. If I didn’t know, I’d say it was the Demons.”

“But… it was not.” Merlin almost seemed hopeful, there.

“Oh, no. This has his name written all over it. Something in the way it’s written.”

“What does the note even say?” Elyan asked, his fingers impatiently fidgeting with his belt, where his sword usually hung.

“Well,” Mike smiled nervously, “this is the tricky part. It – “

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Gwaine finally snapped, snatching the piece of parchment from Mike’s hands to read it aloud. “Uther’s soul never died, and shall one day be reborn so as to seek vengeance.” Pause. “Alright. I’m not afraid to admit that this literally gave me the chills. Am I the only one in this situation, or – “

“Does this… mean what I think it means?” Merlin calmly asked, though there was a glint in his eyes that was definitely chilling.

“I’m afraid it does. There are no more doubts to be had, now.” Leaning towards the knights and ladies, who had somehow all seemed to gather around the man, Mike whispered: “He is here.

There were a few seconds of solemn silence, and then:

“Who is?”

Mike began pacing in the room in a very theatrical manner, while Merlin just stared at a corner of the wall and nodded as the man spoke.

“He is no ordinary man. Everywhere he goes, chaos follows. Some call him the Hunter, for he has been hunting our group and the enemies of Uther Pendragon for what seems like decades now. Others… call him the Ghost, for his gifts in deceit are unrivalled. I, however, prefer to call him by his birth name… George.”

George?” Gwaine burst out laughing, and Percival saw Merlin cast him a reproachful look. “Doesn’t sound very threatening, does it?”

“Oh, but he is,” Mike declared, not letting Gwaine’s teasing unsettle him. “Very much so. Some say that he is the most dangerous man ever to walk this Earth.”

“Now,” Aria chuckled, glancing at Merlin, “this seems a little bit exaggerated – “

“He killed his first man when he was five.”

The ladies and knights all stared in shock.

“Knocked him out with a pan. When he was eleven, he kidnapped one of the leaders of the Uther Hate Group. When poor Nick was released, he was completely brainwashed. Served King Uther till the day he died. Kept singing his praises to every man he met.”

Percival gulped.

“He is our archenemy. One of the most dangerous and charismatic men in this area. Beware! You mustn’t let his charismatic personality fool you, for he will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. He seduces men as easily as he wields the axe. He is a terror.” Then, leaning towards Merlin, Mike whispered: “He is a terror, and we are in his sights. We’re living on borrowed time, Merlin, and we’ll be lucky if the Uther Hate Group still exists come morning.”

Percival had only learnt of the Uther Hate Group’s existence a few weeks back, and yet the man’s words threw him in a state of confusion and fear that he could not explain. He realised that he did not want the Uther Hate Group to perish.

.

Soooooo, to sum it all up, he wants our help to ensure that his rebellious little group lives?”

“He asked us to keep an eye open, Aria,” Merlin retorted with a sigh, “not to do his killings for him.”

“Oh. Excellent. Then it’s perfectly alright. How reasonable of him. At least you won’t have to add this George to your kill list, then,” she added rather pettily.

“For the twentieth time, Aria, I do not have a kill list!” Merlin retorted, sounding like they’d had this argument a dozen times already.

From the look of it, the two of them were about to engage in yet another one of their heated conversations, conversations that usually ended with far too much romantic energy, if Elyan and Gwaine were to be trusted, and so Percival chose to step away, not feeling very eager to assist to that. What was worse? To remain here and witness a growing quarrel between two individuals that were very clearly attracted to each other, or to go back to the castle yard and be forced to watch as Sir Leon bludgeoned King Uther with fruits and possibly his own fists? He struggled to come to an answer.

But then his thoughts were interrupted by Gwaine, who, striding forward, had come to stand between the two, arms resolutely crossed over his chest in a posture of defiance. Oh, dear.

“Oh, no, no, no, no! You two are not doing that!”

Merlin and Aria frowned in astounding synchronisation. “Doing what?” Percival got shivers.

“This – this thing that you do!” To Aria, he barked: “I’m warning you, keep your hands off him!”

“Oi!” Aria snapped back, cheeks flushed. “You keep your hands off him!”

“And you keep your hands off her!” Merlin concluded, leading Percival to the conclusion that nobody was allowed to touch anyone – which, quite frankly, suited him quite well.

Physical contact was overrated anyway.

“Alright,” Percival interjected when he saw Gwaine opening his mouth. “Where are we going next?”

“To the main hall for the autographs,” Merlin begrudgingly announced, casting Aria a dark look.

“Autographs! Great!” Gwaine rather exaggeratedly said, plastering an enthusiastic smile upon his lips. “Heard that, boys? Autographs!

Percival frowned, but, as Gwaine seemed intent on getting words out of him, he finally managed a, “yay.” Gwaine seemed content enough as he turned back to Merlin, visibly hoping he had managed to bring his good mood back. Merlin, although still pouting slightly, seemed a bit enthusiastic as well as he engaged in a detailed description of what the main hall activities consisted in.

“Well, obviously Joseph will be there, although, as I’ve told you before, he is quite famous, so I doubt we’ll manage to get very close. But we regularly meet up for tea, so I can arrange something if you’d like to get to know him better. He’s quite modest, you know? Never brags about his hay-dolls, not for lack of admirers, though. Oh, hi there, Rupert. Didn’t see you there. Oh, Mark! I’m so glad to see you at last. So happy you made it. How’s the rest of the band doing? Did Johnny manage to repair his axe, the poor thing?”

Percival winced as he saw the knights as well as Aria shot Mark a dark look, clearly mistrustful, and he felt a wave of compassion for Mark, who, from what he’d seen of him so far, seemed like a very decent person.

“Well,” Mark blushed, glancing down at his feet, “there is no band left, per se. The man who led us – ‘twas my cousin, you see, and he perished a few weeks ago. Ate a couple of poisoned mushrooms. So, yeah. Not so well. On a happier note, Johnny did manage to repair his axe,” he added, trying to smile.

“Oh, heavens, I am so sorry. How awful! You must miss him terribly.”

“Oh, I didn’t know him all that well. Besides, I was told that the mushrooms were very tasty, so it was a nice death. As nice as deaths go,” he added after a few seconds of dubitation.

“One’s got to rejoice of the little things,” Merlin solemnly said, and Mark nodded in the same fashion.

Percival looked at the two of them disbelievingly, before finally shaking his head, giving up on trying to understand either of them.

“So,” Merlin cheerfully rebounded, “do you like it here so far?”

“Oh, yes,” Mark beamed, “very much.”

“Enough to make you reconsider going after Uther instead of Emrys?” Merlin mischievously asked, a playful smile dancing on the edge of his lips.

Gwaine and Aria were now glaring very sharp daggers at Mark, and Percival would very much not like to be in his stead.

“Oh!” Mark chuckled. “I won’t be going after either Uther’s ghost or Emrys, I fear. My killing days are over,” he seriously said, though Percival doubted he’d ever killed anything or anyone. He just… deeply doubted it. Gwaine seemed to share his opinion, since he saw him exchange a sceptical glance with Elyan. “My cousin’s the one who was after the man, you see, and I just – tagged along for the ride.” Merlin hummed sympathetically, seeming quite taken with Mark’s story. “But now, alas, I’ve come to realise that a murderer’s career was hardly the right path for me.”

“Oh, my, is that true? Are you quite certain? That’s a rather huge decision to make.”

Merlin sounded genuinely regretful of the fact that Mark was considering taking the path of law.

“Don’t encourage the lad to pursue a criminal’s career, Merlin,” Aria tensely said, and Percival could only agree with her.

“I’m merely being realistic, is all,” Merlin retorted before turning back to Mark. “I know for a fact that it can be very hard for criminals to reorientate - did you know that almost seventy percent of our retired killers ended up either killing other people, or themselves? Tragical, that’s what it is. This country, our country, seriously ought to start providing these ex-murderers some serious supporting structures!” he said with conviction, raising his tone, and Percival’s eyes widened when he heard a few strangers walking nearby uttering ayes of their own at Merlin’s statement.

“The said murderers did willingly become murderers,” Elyan pointed out, frowning.

“Oh, have some heart, Elyan!” Gwaine exclaimed. “Merlin speaks truly, this kingdom does lack serious rehabilitating programs for those with a painful history like our dearest Mark, here.” He seemed to have established that Mark was not a threat to either of them, after long minutes of ruthless glaring. “Also, taverns should serve ale for free,” he added with feigned nonchalance, and his remark was greeted with another chorus of ayes, causing him to beam proudly. Merlin raised his eyes to heaven, before gently asking Mark:

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

“I want this new chapter for myself,” the young man nodded, smiling. “So, yes, I am sure, Merlin. Thank you. And besides,” he added teasingly, “from what you told me, that Emrys has got quite a few people on his list already.”

“Oh, well, you know him,” Merlin said, sighing. “Busy man, can’t get a second for himself. Well, I’ll be happy to cross you off his list, Mark! Seriously, though. Congratulations. You’ve come a long way, my friend.” The two men now had tears in their eyes. “Oh, give me a hug,” said Merlin after a sigh, pulling the young man closer, and then they were both hugging, under the knights’ shocked gazes and Aria’s disabused one.

“What is it with you lot and getting all touchy-feely with murderers?” Elyan muttered, now glancing accusingly at… some spot at Percival’s right. Oh, and there was Rupert, his hand fiercely clinging to Percival’s sleeve. Alright. That was new.

Percival paused for a second. What was he supposed to do now? Maybe – pat the man on the head, or something? He was at a loss for words, or gestures, so he simply resolved to throwing glances around them, careful to ignore Elyan’s look.

“Does he make a habit of hugging every murderer he comes across?” Gwaine grumbled.

“Wait – there’s been others?” Aria squeaked.

At the same time, Merlin was sniffing, seemingly quite upset. “You should know that – well, I know I’m not supposed to say those things, but – but you should know – oh, but I shouldn’t say it – but you deserve to know – you were my favourite, alright? One of my very best candidates, always polite, always punctual. And there’ll never be another one like you, Mark. You are leaving this path for a righter one, and for that I admire you, but trust me when I say that the criminals’ world will miss you fiercely. That I will miss you fiercely.” A pause, then: “Of course, feel free to visit any time, be it only just for tea.”

“Oh, no, that’s enough,” Gwaine muttered, before raising his tone to call: “OI! Can I get a hug, too?”

Gwen promptly told him to shut his mouth, pretexting that this was an emotional moment. Percival just rolled his eyes.

After much glaring on Gwaine and Aria’s parts, the two men finally parted, and Merlin cheerfully led the way to the main hall, for the autographs.

“See those vultures in the corner?” he said as soon as they entered the room. “Demons, all of them. Pff. I’ll never understand how on Earth they became so famous. Can you believe me when I tell you that there were the first murderers, ever, to dare attempt a murder on a Sunday? Before they showed up, everything was so peaceful. Now, all the others are doing it, too. Whatever harmony there once was, they completely shattered it with their lack of manners and dubious morals. Troublemakers, the lot of them. Set up a terrible example for the younger ones.”

Following Merlin’s gaze, Percival quickly caught sight of the Demons, whose voices he could hear from here as they were apparently defending the use of a certain type of poison so as to commit regicide. They seemed quite enthusiastic, much to Percival’s regret. He didn’t like them.

“Shame,” murmured Gwaine, frowning at the Demons. “I thought we’d managed to break them earlier. Guess we’ll have to try it again. Oh, they’re looking at us. All of you, wave and smile.”

Percival had to admit that they were, to some extent, a frightening sight; four knights, two ladies and one fierce servant waving together, somewhat mechanically, at the group of bandits. He felt proud at the sight of the Demons’ apparent dismay.

“Right,” Merlin said, a slight smile tugging at his lips. “Let’s not linger on that lot, and go and see the Riddles instead. Oh, I love them. I could tell you about them for hours. Instead of attempting to either stab or poison Uther, they tried to roast him – which, if you want my opinion, echoes quite nicely with all the pyres and such. Poetic murder, that’s what it is. Obviously, now that Uther’s dead, they’re at a loss for things to do, but they’ve quickly made up for it with their series of epic tales – they’re on their fifth volume now, already! The series is called – The mistake-paved life of Uther Pendragon, I believe. They’ve really got a way with words.”

“Merlin,” Aria said, “roast… you meant to say, burn. Yes?”

“No, roast is what I meant. They’re cannibals. So, as I was saying – “

Predictably, the two friends quickly got into another one of their quarrels, and the knights’ attentions darted elsewhere.

“What ‘bout – what ‘bout them?” Gwaine suddenly said, grasping Percival and Elyan’s sleeves to stop them from walking and urge them to look at a particular direction. He was pointing at a group of assassins clad in shining armours, a group of assassins who, he had to admit, did make quite an impressive sight. “Blimey, who are they?”

“Nice sword!” Elyan whistled, assessing the assassins’ clothes and weapons, which strongly resembled that of the knights.

And at first, yeah, Percival wasn’t all that impressed, because they were just people, right? People with nice clothes and admittedly pleasing face features. But then – then he saw their war hammers, and, oh, gods, weren’t they glorious? He was struck by a desire to get a closer look at those hammers. His heart started to beat faster and faster, and from the corner of his eyes, he could see the knights begin to fidget as well. Oh, dear gods, Percival was blushing now. Those hammers –

“We. Need. To. Meet. Them,” was all he managed to say in between heavy puffs of breath.

“Nice haircut!” Elyan said. “Friends, that could be us!”

“Oh, we would make awesome assassins,” Gwaine dreamily said with stars in his eyes.

Neither of them would look away from the group of assassins, fearing that if they did, they might disappear.

But then suddenly, Lancelot was clearing his throat and striding towards them with a frown of perplexity etched on his face. “Hey, what are you lot looking at – oooooh.” He promptly shut up.

“Yes, my friend, oh,” Elyan whispered, wrapping a friendly arm around Lancelot’s back to tug him closer to their group. “That’s the word.”

And so a new Lancelot was born, and he was childish, and excited, and utterly perfect.

“The pommels of their swords! Look at ‘em, look at ‘em! They’ve got chimeras there, chimeras and, and Cerberuses and all types of creatures! One of them has even got Medusa! How, how is this – This is all I’ve ever dreamed of, and more! Why don’t we get to wield such weapons in Camelot, eh? I wanted a winged lion on the pommel of my sword, too.”

“And I want a dragon,” Gwaine proudly stated.

“And I, a panther,” Elyan assented.

“A beaming peacock,” Percival whispered with tears of emotion in his eyes.

The four knights were now entirely mesmerised with the sight that the assassins made, paying no attention to the rest of the room and what was occurring there. That is, of course, until Elyan resolutely said, “Let’s go meet them.”

Percival paused.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!” He clutched the knight’s sleeve tightly, biting his lip. “I – I – I – I’m shy. I always stutter when I’m shy. And I can’t find my words. And I blush. And I try to hug people.” His eyes widened in realisation, and he exclaimed: “I’m going to make a fool of myself!”

“Yeah!” Gwaine rushed to his side, leaning against the knight’s frame for support, and they both huddled together, shaking as much as the other did. Gwaine was blanch. “What if – what if they don’t like us?” The earlier realisation of his link to Uther had heavily impacted the knight’s self-confidence, and now he was just as nervous as Percival himself. Nobody deserved to go through ordeals such as realising one’s link to a mad king.

“Oh, come on, friends!” Elyan cried, trying to cheer them up. “You’re not gonna make fools of yourselves!”

“Oh, but we are,” Gwaine aggressively shot back. “Can’t you see? They’re… them. And we’re just… us.” He exchanged a glance with Percival, who nodded, agreeing with Gwaine with all of his heart.

“We’re just not enough,” he said, and it was Gwaine’s turn to solemnly nod.

“Not enough? Why such low spirits? You – we – are knights of bloody Camelot! The knights of Camelot, might I add.”

“Err, yeah – you may not want to say that too loudly,” Percival began, but then trailed off at the look of severity on his friend’s face. “Right, right. Bad timing. ‘M sorry. Do carry on, Elyan.”

“Right.” Elyan cleared his throat. “Where was I? Lancelot, gimme a hand, here. Lancelot?”

“Where is he – oh, no, he didn’t.”

He did.

The knight was already heading towards the group of assassins, having not even cared to wait for them! He appeared to be heading there with quick, determined strides, and Percival could practically see him shake in excitement.

“OI!” Gwaine yelled, having visibly forgotten all about his previous doubts, and, to be fair, Percival felt the same way. “Where’re you going, Du Lac? You’d better wait for us, you hear me? Oi! I’m speaking to you!” He then turned to Percival and Elyan, huffing, “rude. Let’s go after him.”

And so they went after him. Percival barely heard Merlin’s voice as he tried to warn them, “Err, I should probably warn you beforehand that they’re a bit, erm, a bit – “

“Ta, Merls, but we’ve got the situation perfectly under control,” Gwaine shot back.

As it occurred, though… the situation was not under control, at all.

For one, the knights-assassins looked even lovelier from a closer look, causing Percival’s chest to fluster foolishly. Secondly, they did not seem particularly happy with the knights’ arrival. And finally – finally, well, none of his friends seemed willing to engage in a talk, leaving that terrible responsibility to none other than Percival.

“Hi!” he greeted the knights-assassins, trying to stifle a nervous laugh with his hand… and accidentally knocking aside a goblet that had been resting on the assassins’ wooden desk. “Woops! Sorry, sorry.” Cursing himself, he picked up the object with trembling hands, and busied himself with studying it, another nervous chuckle coming out from his lips. Act cool. Act cool. “Huh. Pretty.” He beamed. “The designs, that is. That a – a peacock, by any chance?”

For Percival’s defence, he was hardly even paying attention to the designs, too busy focusing about not dropping the cup.

It did not stop him from flinching as he heard the man’s reply, though –

“It’s a griffin.”

Percival instantly gulped, feeling his heart drop within his chest, and he handed the man the goblet with shaky hands. His knees were all wobbly! He hated this!

“Right,” Gwaine subtly pushed Percival onto the side, replacing him so that now he was the one facing the knight-assassin. He shot Percival a look. “Of course it’s a griffin. Dunno what you were thinking there, mate. Excuse him. Now, gentlemen, you might prefer to address yourselves to me. I am – “

And then Gwaine met the first man’s gaze, and… paused, apparently as intimidated as Percival had been earlier.

“You are?” the man said, sounding annoyed.

Percival tensed.

“Err, err, err, I’m Gary. Grant. Grary. Err. Oh, no.”

And so Gwaine was lost to them as well.

“What even are you saying?” Elyan reproachfully said, rolling his eyes and grasping the knight’s sleeve to tug him aside. “Excuse them, please. The name’s Elyan. Pleasure to meet you.”

At the same time, Gwaine and Percival were back to huddling together closely, whispering their fears at each other.

“I don’t know what happened there, mate. I lost my cool! I lost my cool, Percival! Gwaine never loses his cool.”

“And Percival’s knees never get wobbly, but that’s what happened anyway,” Percival shot back, waving at his wobbling knees.

At the same time, Elyan and the assassins were engaging in a… talk, of some sort.

“Any particular reason for you being here?”

“Oh, nothing in particular, we were just passing by and thought we’d pop by,” Elyan casually replied.

“Yeah, we thought we’d pop by,” Gwaine echoed, “just casually – pop by.”

“’S almost a coincidence, really,” Percival assented, “us – popping by, here, that is.”

The glare that Elyan shot them both was crystal clear: it said, shut up.

“Maybe you’d like to ask us some questions?” the man said, exchanging a glance with his companions. “That’s what they usually do, isn’t it? Though I never quite fathomed why.”

“Yes, questions, questions, great idea,” Elyan nodded. “Any questions, boys?” He paused. “And by boys,” he then whispered, “I mean Lancelot solely. He’s the only one I trust enough to interact with them.”

“Right,” Lancelot said, grinning. “What’s that one called, then?”

The assassins seemed surprised. “Pa – pardon?”

“Your sword, of course! What’s it called?”

“Why – “ The assassin shot his companions what seemed to be an exasperated look. “Why would I name my sword?”

Lancelot’s confidence did not waver. “Why wouldn’t you name it?” he retorted, staring at the assassins, unblinking.

“Because… it’s an inanimate object?”

The knight waved the remark off. “That’s just rubbish. Hay-stuffed Uther’s an inanimate object as well, and yet that’s not stopping you lot from calling him the king’s name.”

The knights exchanged looks of assent, while the assassins… glared.

And that’s when Percival thought, oh, dear, we’ve done it. They hate us.

His knees were wobbly once again.

.

“I almost feel bad for him.”

“Oh, come on, Gwen.”

“But I do! Doesn’t it remind you of that one time with the donkey ears?”

“Is that supposed to make me feel remorse? Because all it’s doing is making this even more amusing.” Gwen shot Merlin what she probably intended to be a stern look, but with the grin progressively slipping onto her lips, she was fooling no one, and certainly not Merlin. “Besides, we both know that that one time when Arthur was a donkey was hilarious. That’s just facts.”

“Gods forgive me, but it was,” Gwen admitted, and then she was clutching Merlin’s arm, and Merlin was leaning against her, and they were both bursting into loud laughter.

“He tried to cut his hair with his sword this morning, I thought he was gonna chop his own head off – “

“Did you see his face when he met Gwaine?”

“Oh, and when Mike tried to kiss his hand, oh, gods – “

“And the poems! How did he react to the poems?”

“About as well as he reacted to Uther’s stoning. But, oh, gods, was it worth it – ”

“I am a little bit worried about this whole archnemesis business, though…”

“Don’t be. The person we’re dealing with already has his main targets, among which the Mikes, obviously, and possibly myself; the point is, he shouldn’t harm any of you, so long as you don’t show any particular sign of dislike for Uther.”

“What about Leon, though?”

Merlin bit his lips worriedly. That… was something that he had not thought of. Speaking of which, where was Leon? Things had been going great so far, with the faint sound of Rupert selling his sweet potatoes in the background – he did that every year, claimed that there were many clients to be found here, at the Uther Hate club meetings – and of random killers trying to recruit passers-by, but now, the news of Leon’s absence were making him quite uneasy.

As he searched through the crowd, he spotted Arthur, who was currently –

Oh, gods.

“Arthur, for the last time, you do not get to challenge total strangers to duels!”

Arthur shot him a look that clearly said, I’d like to see you try to stop me, and Merlin huffed.

“I have half a mind to try!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, is that so?” Arthur shouted back, from the opposite corner of the room.

“You craving for attention does not give you the right to start behaving like a fool!” Merlin yelled.

“I am the King of Camelot, so you’ll find that I have every right to!”

Merlin ran a tired hand over his face, glancing at Gwen. “Tell me he did not just say that here.”

She shrugged, rubbing a gentle hand on his back. “Half the people here are already busy making impressions of Uther, anyway. I doubt anybody’ll notice.”

Merlin nodded. She had a point.

He still shouted at Arthur, though, “I bet even the knights are behaving better than you!”

But Arthur simply snorted, saying, “Doubt that.”

And, damn him, but he was right.

“UGH!” was the first sound the knights emitted when they came back.

Merlin couldn’t help but notice that they were in a sorry state. Between Percival who could barely stand and had to lean against Gwaine for balance, Lancelot whose forehead creases were taking quite a threatening turn, Gwaine, whose entire face had taken a very reddish shade, and Elyan, who seemed torn between a thousand emotions among which were despair, exasperation, shame and no small amount of anger, Merlin genuinely did not know which knight to pity most.

“I hate them,” Gwaine was sobbing, face now buried against Percival’s broad shoulder, “you hear me? I hate them!”

“I haven’t been that anxious in years,” Percival whispered back, “not even when Morgana took Camelot. Now, I know that every time I’ll look at a war hammer, I’ll think of them. I don’t think I can be a knight any longer, Gwaine. I’m ruined.”

“Why… didn’t… they… name… their… swords?” Lancelot seemed to be hyperventilating, and Gwen quickly rushed to his side, shooting Merlin a worried look.

“They’re not even real knights,” Elyan stubbornly said, shaking his head resolutely. “What right do they have to teach us our job?”

“And, most of all, to criticise Gwaine’s haircut?” Percival assented, rubbing a smoothing hand in the trembling knight’s hair.

“That’s true,” Elyan nodded. “No one but us is allowed to make fun of it, so how dare they?”

“Friends, friends,” Merlin soothingly said, “why don’t we all just take a deep breath? Think of home. Think of nice hugs, and beautiful flowers, and tasty apple pies, and steady weapons, and now, let us just breathe deeply, yes? In… and out… you with me?”

“Always with you, Merlin,” Gwaine promised, eyes half-shut.

Most of the knights had their eyes closed now, surprisingly docile in following Merlin’s indications.

“Right. Repeat after me, you are strong, wonderful knights of Camelot.”

“We are strong, wonderful knights of Camelot,” they obediently repeated.

Gwen seemed amazed, beaming at Merlin. “You did it!” she whispered. “You calmed them down!”

But then, all of a sudden, Percival’s eyes were opening, and he was asking, “WHERE’S LEON?”

As soon as they saw Leon sat a table, casually taking autographs from killers and killer fans that had come from all over Camelot, the knights were back to hyperventilating, and there was nothing that Merlin could do to get them to calm down after that.

To be fair, even Merlin would have been made uneasy by the sight, had he not known what was going on inside the knight’s mind. Things being as they were, he simply refrained an urge to roll his eyes, and focused on gathering Arthur, Gwen and the knights. They had a theatre play to attend to.

.

“So,” Leon was saying from where he was sat between Gwaine and Elyan, “that’s nice. D’you think we’ll get to throw some more stuff at Uther after the show?”

“Mh…” Elyan said, pretending to think about it. “Nah, sorry, mate. I doubt it.”

“Hm. Shame.” Then, just as quickly, the knight was grinning again. “Never mind. I’m having the best time of my life anyway.”

“Are you?” Percival asked, a nervous laugh escaping from his lips. Merlin noted that he seemed very stressed out, and he felt a wave of pity for the knight who had been behaving as Leon would have in any other circumstances. “Good. That’s… good. Very nice.” Rupert gently rubbed his back, and Merlin shot the man a grateful glance. Rupert truly was a wonderful soul.

“Yo, friends,” Leon started with a dopey grin on his lips. “Listen to me. I’ve just invented a new motto. It’s so good. I think it should be the motto of Camelot, ‘cause it’s so great. Want to hear it?”

“Damn it, Leon!” Gwaine exclaimed. “It was funny at the beginning, but now I’m really getting scared.”

“It’d be something like, You Only Live Once,” Leon continued all the same. “Something to inspire boldness and ambition.”

Merlin felt Arthur’s eyes on him as the king grabbed his sleeve and shot him a worried look. “What did they give him?”

“Nothing,” Percival replied in his stead, eyes widely opened. “That’s what worries me.”

On the stage in the middle of the courtyard, Mike had now appeared, with a sheet of parchment in his hands. He cleared his throat.

“FRIENDS! This is our group’s thirtieth anniversary, and for this special occasion, we will welcome our group’s co-funder, who chooses to make himself called the Black Rose! Let us welcome him with a roar of applause!”

A darkly cloaked figure then appeared on stage, laying a grateful hand on Mike’s shoulder before standing to face them all. Merlin instantly had a bad feeling about this stranger. Could he be the mysterious nemesis of the group? But that would hardly make sense. The Black Rose…

The man cleared his throat. Merlin noted that the hood concealed his face quite efficiently. “Right. I am here to perform a theatre play featuring the oh so honourable Uther Pendragon.” His tone was emotionless, but also quite good at providing comic relief. Merlin himself had to crack a grin. “And our topic for tonight is to be…” He suddenly stopped talking, shoulders shaking, and it took Merlin a while to realise that he was actually laughing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said between several bursts of laughter, “it’s just bloody hilarious. Death by troll asphyxiation!

“YEEEEEEEEES!” a loud voice yelled at Merlin’s right, and this was – Leon. Right.

“And I shall be impersonating Uther Pendragon tonight,” the mysterious man continued, as he rubbed his hands together. “Alright, let me get into character.” And then he began reciting series of sentences that, Merlin had to admit, were indeed very much in character. Burn them all!, sorcery! and my legacy! came back quite often.

“Pst! Merlin.”

What?” Merlin huffed. “I’m focused on the play!”

“The play’s not even begun yet,” Arthur retorted haughtily. “The man’s merely showing off. But… doesn’t he seem familiar to you?”

“Familiar?” Merlin shook his head. “If I’d ever encountered such a funny man before, trust me, I’d remember.”

“I don’t know,” Arthur muttered, rubbing his chin absently. “There’s something odd about him.”

“I don’t think he’s being odd,” Merlin said, shrugging, unwilling to admit that he, too, had had a strange feeling about the man. “He’s just stating truths.” The man had just called Uther a spoiled, whimsical king, and Merlin could only agree.

“He’s not stating truths, he’s being downright rude, but obviously you’re not shocked since you yourself are just as rude,” Arthur retorted with a shrug. “And anyway, that’s not my point. See, the thing is – “

“Oh, I’m rude? I’m not the one who kept challening perfect strangers to duels earlier just because they had looked at me the wrong way, now, am I? You were just bored, Arthur, admit it. And a bored Arthur leads to a rude Arthur, ultimately.”

“I was not – “

“Excuse me?” a woman suddenly called, offering them both a bundle of sheets.

“Yes?” Merlin said, beaming pleasantly.

“Yes?” Arthur echoed, with a beam just as wide. “Whatever you need.”

“Hm-hm. My hands are yours.” Leaning towards Arthur, he added, “See? I’m being polite.” Arthur simply glowered.

“Alright,” the woman said, sounding a little surprised, as though she had been expecting this to be harder. “Erm, could you please help me hand those out in your seat row, if you don’t mind? It’s just that it’s a bit narrow, and so it’d really help if you could just – “

“Sure!” Merlin smiled. “Give me those, I’ll do it happily.”

“You’re so clumsy, Merlin,” Arthur snorted, “I’d better do it, or else you’ll damage them.”

“Oh,” the woman smiled, “it’s not all that important, so long as everyone gets one… “

“See, Arthur? Now, let me – ”

They ended up sort of fighting for the sheets in a sort of childish manner, all the while chatting pleasantly with the woman.

“What are those about, anyway?” Merlin inquired.

“Oh!” The woman blushed. “The man who’s on stage asked me to deliver those to everyone in the crowd. I think it’s publicity for a woman named Morgana. At least that’s what’s written on the papers.” She shrugged, and then walked away.

Arthur instantly dropped the paper as though it had burnt him, and as he looked at it, Merlin noted that there was indeed a portrait of Morgana there, followed with a text urging people to join her.

Join me in my pastoral cabin in the woods for day you won’t forget,” he read, “a nicely decorated cabin where plans shall be elaborated and heads shall be cut. Don’t forget to bring food and flowers. Or Arthur Pendragon’s head. Hm.” He glanced up at the man on stage, who had currently engaged into a rather heated tirade about… peasants. Against them, more like. “So this man… is with Morgana?” Then he glanced back down at the small brochures, and hummed appreciatively. “I do love the concept, though. I mean, how come nobody ever thought of it before? Brochures! It’s excellent. I wouldn’t be opposed to meeting that man in person.” Having received no answer from Arthur, he frowned. “Arthur? Everything alright?”

“I’m just… thinking.”

“You know that’s not good for you,” Merlin said joking.

But then Percival called Merlin’s name, and Merlin frowned on noting how very blanch the knight was. He was pointing a trembling finder at Arthur. “That’s… that’s the king of Camelot sitting right next to you, isn’t it?”

Oh. Merlin bit his lip, gulped, and tried to smile. “Try… try not to think about it, yeah?”

“MERLIN!” Gwaine exclaimed, disapproving.

“What?” Merlin shot back. “He insisted!”

“Oh, gods, oh, gods,” Percival was saying, “we are definitely getting beheaded for that.” He then glanced at Leon. “How come I’m the only one worrying right now? Am I the only responsible adult left, is that it? Leon, goddammit, that’s supposed to be your job!”

“And so,” the man on stage continued, “this is why Uther Pendragon did not deserve Ygraine. He was a wicked man, and she, in all her cunningness and kindness, deserved better!” He had now been joined by other actors, who seemed quite unsure as to which behaviour to adopt, given that the man wouldn’t stop talking.

“Arthur,” Merlin said, turning to his king impatiently. “What. Is. Wrong. With you?”

“I’m just…”

“Thinking, I got that.”

Merlin sighed as one of the men on stage said a joke including kitchen items and servants.

“And look, I get it. This place is turning your brain upside down. It’s turning all of our brains upside down. Hell, look at Leon! But Percival over there is having a serious panic attack, so if you could just reassure him that you’re not going to chop any heads, I’m sure that would help a lot – “

“Merlin,” Arthur cut him, eyes fixed on the stage, “shut up for a second, will you? I – I know this joke. I’ve heard it before.”

“Arthur,” Merlin sighed, “I appreciate the attempt to deflect, I truly do, but I am trying to have a serious conver – oh, gods, the man just drew a kitchen knife! What is this? Is it still part of the play? Should we react or not?”

Leon cheered. “Finally, something’s going on!”

The actor who had just drawn a kitchen knife was now threatening the other man, the Black Rose, be it part of the play or not, and he was shouting something about royalty and duty, and his face, and, oh, no –

“GEORGE!” Merlin shouted.

“The manservant?” Gwaine stared with wide eyes.

“The killer,” Merlin murmured.

“This is – George!”

“I can’t – I’d like to unsee that, please. The brass jokes were bad enough, but this? George, a killer?”

“Defending Uther’s honour, of all people?”

“George, frankly!”

Mike the leader, who had shuffled towards their seats, was following their discussion with suspicious eyes. “Well, I did tell you that his name was George.”

“Yes,” Elyan retorted, “you did, but you did not tell us that he was…”

George!” the knights said, all together, somewhat dramatically.

“Well,” Mike frowned, “how many Georges do you know?”

“Oh, don’t you get all clever with us,” Elyan said, “Mike. Don’t think we’ve forgotten about your wicked name.”

Mike’s face was filled with instant despair.

As Merlin followed the action on stage, he noted that George had just forcibly removed the Black Rose’s hood, and –

“Oh, that’s Agravaine. And they’re both… trying to kill each other. Agravaine. And George.”

“I know we’re supposed to be on Agravaine’s side here, but I can’t help but hope that George will win – “

“Why would we even be supposed to be on Agravaine’s side?” Arthur asked, despaired.

“Well, he’s part of the Uther Hate Group, isn’t he?”

“And?”

Merlin shook his head, waving towards Elyan. “Well, he’s got a point.”

“I feel a bit bad about mocking George earlier,” Gwaine admitted, shooting Mike an understanding look. “He is quite scary, especially with that knife in his hands.”

“I hope he doesn’t go after us once he’s done with Agravaine,” Elyan said. “I would hate to kill him after him having committed such a good deed.”

“But you’ve got to intervene!” Mike said, begging. “Agravaine is such a faithful member of our group. He’s been supporting us financially since day one! He is a pillar of the Uther Hate Group!”

“Please, don’t make us intervene,” Gwaine said softly. “George and Agravaine duelling is like a dream come true.”

“Let’s take bets on who’ll win,” Elyan suggested. “And goddammit, Percival, get a grip on yourself! Nobody’s going to behead anyone!”

The poor knight was still panicking, though, and Merlin could easily guess that all the anxiety of the day had to be surging back at this instant.

“Please don’t behead Percival,” the warlock instantly told Arthur, whose face stated that he was clearly done. “He’s a good knight. And don’t behead Gwen either,” Merlin hurriedly added, “’cause she’s a sweetheart.”

“A sweetheart?”

They both looked at Gwen, who was currently giving a very anti-Uther speech to a group of people at her right, shouting, “Uther ruined a perfectly decent king, that’s what he did! Look at him! He’s got anxiety!”

Arthur ran a tired hand over his face, sighing loudly. “Is the entirety of this kingdom actually plotting behind my back against the late king, my father?”

Merlin pointed a finger towards George, on stage. “Not everyone! See? George is still faithful to him! He’s even ready to wage a bloody crusade against the Uther Hate Group and all Uther haters, see? I doubt you’ll ever see such devotion from anyone else.”

“This. This is a nightmare,” Arthur firmly declared. He took a deep sigh, closing his eyes briefly.

Nodding apologetically, Merlin rested a compassionate hand on the king’s shoulder. “Yep.”

“Also.” Arthur opened his eyes, stood up, and reached for his sword. What had earlier been despair in his gaze had now turned into iron determination. “We’re not letting them kill each other. Come on.”

“Oh, no, please, Arthur! Come on!”

Obviously, they all ended up following him anyway. Neither of the knights were willing to refuse a nice fight, and Merlin… Merlin would follow Arthur with closed eyes if he had to.

.

Under the gleaming moon, six knights, one lady and one warlock left the fortress, riding and chattering.

“I do admire your acting skills,” Gwen told Leon, smiling.

“Oh, well…” The knight blushed a little. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t entirely pretending until after the support group. Merlin was right. It helped, it truly did. And then afterwards, well…”

“It was fun?” Gwen guessed.

“Yes,” he nodded, “fun. That’s the word.” He tried the word on his lips, and found that he quite liked it. “I hope I wasn’t too hard on Percival, though.” He paused. “On a lighter note, at least fifteen people asked me to join their band today.”

“Yeah,” Gwen casually replied, sighing wearily, “same here. The first two times, it’s flattering, but after a while, it just gets…”

“Irritating,” Leon completed. “Yeah.”

Needless to say, Gwaine and Elyan were enraged.

“Nobody asked me. No one,” Gwaine was fuming.

“Please, let us just speak of something else,” Elyan wisely recommended.

“Oh.” Percival beamed. “Rupert killed a man with a soap once. He told me earlier.”

Gwaine choked on his saliva. “He what?”

“Yeah. So maybe you’d better think about it twice in the future, before you mock him again.”

Lancelot chuckled. “Well, I, for one, am happy. I think this journey taught us a lot about humility, selflessness and generosity…”

“We’re still better than the Knights of Revenge, though,” Gwaine haughtily said.

“’Course we are! They’re the worst.”

“Absolutely. The thought of them makes me sick.”

“Absolute losers.”

“It’s a shame George and Agravaine escaped, but at least we got to fight them.”

So satisfying.”

“I claimed that man’s sword for myself, and chose to call it Revenge.”

“Nice!”

Riding a few feet forward, finally, were Arthur and Merlin.

“George was quite scary, don’t you think?” Merlin was still shivering at the memory.

“He was terrifying,” the king acquiesced, “but I was already terrified of him. I had several nightmares, you know. With him, clanging my head with pans and saying those terrible brass jokes of his.”

“Ugh.” Merlin hummed sympathetically. “And Agravaine! Goodness!"

“What was even his role in all of this?” Arthur said, frowning. “D’you think he simply donated to the organisation, or that he…”

“Created it?” Merlin shrugged. “I guess we’ll never know.” Then, he chuckled. “Agravaine, founder of the Uther Hate Group. Can you believe it?”

“After what happened today, I could believe anything, really.”

Merlin stared at Arthur for a few seconds before pushing his shoulder against his playfully, smirking as he managed to get a smile out of his king. The latter ruffled the warlock’s hair in retaliation.

Then, turning towards the knights and Gwen, who were riding behind them, Arthur called:

“Eh, Leon! I bet you’re on George’s kill list, now!”

“Oh,” the knight bravely retorted, none too fazed, “let him come!”

They laughed together all the way to Camelot.

- THE END -